The Look of Love #7: John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Vs. the Volcano (1990)

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Dedicated to two recently married couples: my younger brother Langston and his lovely bride Britney; and to dear friends Ernesto & Lae-Lae.

Re-watching Joe Versus the Volcano a few weeks ago, having seen it for the first time since its brief 1990 release in theaters, only confirmed that it’s a regrettably underrated movie. Roger Ebert’s original review opens with this declaration—“my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before”—which is a little much, admittedly, as the movie’s first act is essentially Brazil for dummies.

What ultimately differentiates John Patrick Shanley’s romantic comedy from Terry Gilliam’s dystopian farce (itself a sort of 1984 for non-readers) is Shanley’s assured but mercurial tone. Joe’s first third features the sort of oppressive, fantastical, and overwhelming symbolism and factory sets that characterizes Brazil’s production design but Shanley’s lighter on his feet. The wit makes Joe hum along—it’s borne of uplift rather than the dragging depths. Tom Hanks perfects his Everyman role with Joe Banks, a character who is absolutely mediocre in every way but is nevertheless engaging; we enjoy being in his presence, and watching him grow. The glow that gradually overtakes him makes me grin just to consider it.

Once he’s diagnosed with a “brain cloud” and given a prognosis of six months to live, he goes hogwild. The next scene introduces Joe to a billionaire (Lloyd Bridges) who knows somehow of Joe’s ailment, and offers him the opportunity to have unlimited access to his credit cards so long as Joe is willing, in two weeks, to jump into an active volcano on a South Seas island. (It’s a long story.) Joe agrees to all this in deadpan fashion—Bridges is just going into his windup when Joe cuts him short and says, “Okay, I’ll do it.” He quits his job uproariously—the funniest scene in a movie full of them—and goes on a spending spree, and then asks the secretary DeDe (Meg Ryan) on a date. Her ultimate rejection of him is an appropriately sad end to this bleakly funny first act.

It’s here that Shanley’s romantic comedy veers from Gilliam, and from the screwball comedies that Joe emulates and mocks simultaneously. The second act finds Joe headed to Los Angeles to meet the boat that will take him to the South Seas. Ironically, the Hollywood dream factory is treated more or less realistically. Sure, Joe is driven around by the would-be bohemian, truly depressive Angelica Graynamore (Meg Ryan, again), whose personality is, ahem, outsized. But their conversation is matter-of-fact, seemingly improvised, and matter-of-fact. This section, in which Joe comes to terms with his decision, is more melancholy than the exaggerations of the first act.

Meg Ryan plays three roles—DeDe, and the sisters Angelica and Patricia Graynamore—and shines in all three. It’s as Patricia, the ship captain with a high-wattage smile and a sharp tongue, that Ryan shows her true mettle. She has neither DeDe’s ditziness nor Angelica’s faux-goth grandeur, and she doesn’t split the difference to find a middle-way personality between them. Instead, Patricia achieves a grace of her own merely by being comfortable in her own skin. She’s not plain, exactly—she has ambitions to own the boat Tweedledee (there is, of course, a Tweedledum) and to sail the seven seas—but she doesn’t have the outsized desires of fame and fortune of Joe, her father, or anyone else in the movie. In a movie full of archetypes and finely tuned stereotypes, she’s the ultimate oddity: a real person.

She’s sane, sexy, and sassy—a combination Joe hasn’t seen nor dreamed possible until he meets her. He falls hard for Patricia. How could he not?

They share two heartfelt conversations and a moonlit dinner on the boat’s deck, and gradually they fall in love with each other. It’s not until after these conversations, however, that they get around to showing it.

A sea storm rattles the Tweedledee. Patricia and her crew try desperately to batten the sails, and steady the stern, and whatnot. Joe scrambles out of his cabin to help, and immediately gets blindsided.

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Patricia finds him and helps him up, asking if he’s okay. In the midst of the windswept madness, Joe and Patricia stare deep into each other’s eyes. He lifts up the visor of her raincap. The love is palpable. The moment is pregnant. For all the lightning cracks and waterspray, the scene is lovely and forces the viewer to hone in on the intimacy.

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Finally, they can’t stand it any longer.

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The kiss is glorious. Its delicacy undercuts all the Sturm und Drang that would be too much by half in most romantic comedies, but which is somehow appropriate here. Like the best screwball comedies, Joe Versus the Volcano pulls off the ironic wink to the audience—it knows it’s being too clever; it knows this is a convention to which it must adhere—while being utterly romantic and erotic.

After the long moment, Joe and Patricia regard each other.

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They’re lovey-dovey, but it doesn’t last. Just as Joe contemplates his reverie…

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…the real world (a windswept bow) comes rushing in…

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…to ruin the party. The sail knocks Patricia overboard. Suddenly, Joe—a landlubber up to this point—is forced to make a choice: let his lady love drown in the ocean, or rush into the water to save her.

It’s not really a choice for him. He dives into the drink.

And that, folks, is the essence of true love: the headlong rush of happiness and stability, immediately followed by the need to act, to control damage, to plunge into unknown territory for the sake of another person.

Shanley’s vision isn’t cynical by any means but it acknowledges that, for each flush of pure joy in a couple’s life, there’s an equal rush of holy terror and difficulty. In order for love to work, says Joe, we can’t be complacent but must work to tend the fire, to make sure there’s more joy than sadness. Sap is useless. True love means risking sentiment and danger.

Getting the girl is great, but the real adventure starts after that point.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to The Look of Love #7: John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Vs. the Volcano (1990)

  1. Paul S says:

    If I am ever soul sick, (and I often am), I watch Joe Versus the Volcano. It helps. It really does.

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