Joe Versus the Volcano
John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano came and went pretty fast in 1990. I still managed to catch it twice, the second time finding myself behind a couple who argued loudly about whether they could get their money back. Joe’s following has grown since then, but not by much.
The setup’s certainly offbeat, especially for a comedy: Office drudge Joe Banks
(Tom Hanks) is informed that he has a rare medical condition that will destroy his brain within six months. He is promptly presented with the opportunity to die in style.
Depending on my mood, Joe is a) a silly romp in the company of Hanks, multiple Meg Ryans (she plays most of the women in the movie), Abe Vigoda and Ossie Davis; b) a wonderful musical showcase for the late film composer Georges Delerue; c) the lighter side of Brazil, following a hero whose grasp of reality may be increasingly in doubt; and/or d) a surprisingly well-thought-out expression of the archetypal Hero’s Journey.
In recent years, Joe Versus the Volcano has acquired an entirely new, unintended subtext. Post-2001, it’s impossible to ignore the small detail that the protagonist is a former New York City firefighter. His experiences are only alluded to: We are left to imagine what catastrophe could have broken his spirit and led him to hide away in a pointless, unchallenging job. It makes his return to life, love and risk that much more inspiring. —Thor Klippert