Meaning and Mortality: Joe Versus the Volcano at 30
Released 30 years ago, Joe Versus the Volcano is the first of the three romantic comedies that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made together. Their next two films: Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, would both be Nora Ephron-helmed romantic comedies that are now widely regarded as classics. Writer/Director John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano is something quite different. Shanley, a NYC playwright and screenwriter, directs his first film here off the success of his Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for the 1987 film, Moonstruck. For a romantic comedy, what Shanley has made is a fascinating meditation on the relationship between life, meaning, and death.
Masked in absurdity and overt silliness, it is subtle just how thorough a taxonomy of this interrelation we are given by the film. At the outset, we meet our lead, Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), who has seemingly given up on life from a fear of death; we go on to see him liberated when the uncertainty around his death is removed, and he is told just how little time he has left. We see Joe afraid, confronted with imminent demise in the middle of a treacherous storm; we see him resigned, but grateful, taking care of someone else while hopelessly adrift at sea; we see him walk bravely to his death at the mouth of the volcano; and we see him again at the end of the film, adrift at sea, but now with equanimity for whatever may come next, and ready to share the journey with someone else. At every moment in the film, Joe’s death is always looming in the background, though the details around it may shift as the story unfolds. What changes is a profound difference in Joe’s relationship to his death, that allows him to live the life he has remaining. Quite a trick for a film about a guy who volunteers to jump into a volcano.
In an impressive opening sequence, Shanley paints a hellish portrait of dead-end office life and the workaday world. There is a shot in the first few minutes of the film that is almost the inverse of the iconic scene from The Shawshank Redemption: Tim Robbins standing in the rain, arms outstretched towards the sky, completely free. Here, it is Joe, trudging into work, shoulder to shoulder with his fellow damned, along a grim and gray industrial landscape, having stepped in an ankle deep puddle for the second time, throwing his arms in much the same pose, but demonstrating abject hopelessness and helplessness in the face of his dismal circumstances. The capstone to this scene is a shot of a single flower poking through a crack in the pavement, surrounded by the stepping feet falling all around it, until it is finally crushed under someone’s shoe.
Joe works for a medical supply company, American Panascope. We don’t know everything they make, but the two products that we are shown are rectal probes and petroleum jelly. Joe works in a windowless office, under flickering fluorescent lights. His job is to mail out promotional catalogues to potential customers, but since his boss doesn’t trust him to restock those catalogs himself, he currently has almost nothing left to send.
We are only introduced to two of Joe’s coworkers at the office. There is his boss, Mr. Waturi, played by Dan Hedaya, who we hear as Joe makes his way to his desk to start his day. Mr. Waturi is at a desk in the middle of the office, loudly talking on the phone, having an interminable conversation that consists only in angrily asking different versions of the same question over and over again. Joe’s other coworker we meet is DeDe, the first of the three characters played by Meg Ryan. DeDe is a little sickly like Joe, but generally seems content and accepting of her lot in life. She enjoys her job for what it is and cares enough to check on Joe after he sits down. Since Joe is always sick, though, she doesn’t have much of a baseline to compare him to.
Joe’s brief escape for the day is a trip to the doctor’s office. We hard cut from him rubbing his eyes at his desk, to him rubbing his eyes again in a dismal fluorescent lit waiting room, where he is waiting for Dr. Ellison. When the doctor is ready, the change is a bit like Dorthy walking from her black & white house into technicolor Oz. Dr. Ellison’s office is all rich mahogany, with tidy book-lined shelves and sunlight filtering in through the window. Dr. Ellison himself, played by Robert Stack, is the first healthy looking person we’ve seen in the film.
Dr. Ellison tells Joe some good news and some bad news. Having run an exhaustive battery of tests, they’ve found that all of the many symptoms Joe has been complaining of were psychosomatic. It appears that Joe is a hypochondriac. Insinuated is that Joe felt better in his previous life as a firefighter, but the symptoms that made him leave that job were his body’s response to the dangers of fighting fires. It turns out that he is in almost perfect health. The bad news is that through all of the exhaustive testing, they uncovered something else. Joe has a rare neurological condition called a brain cloud. A brain cloud is a terminal, but otherwise symptom free condition. Joe will experience no ill effects except that one day, within the next few months, his brain will suddenly shut down and he will die.
Joe leaves Dr. Ellison’s office in a bit of a haze. Outside on the street, though, he encounters someone walking their dog and Joe starts to come alive. He heads back to work, full of life. On the way in he comes across that flower from the opening that was stepped on and he coaxes it back to standing again. He loudly quits his job, unloading on Mr. Waturi everything he’s thought of him all along, and on his way out the door for the last time, he asks DeDe out for dinner that night. Yes, Joe is dying, but he has decided to live in the meantime.
Dinner with DeDe goes great, she’s enamored with the newly full of life Joe, but she freaks out and leaves once he tells her that he only has a few months left to live. She likes him, but his situation is more than she’s willing to sign up for at the moment. She returns to her life, the one that Joe just left, and he is left to think about how he will spend the days he has left.
An answer arrives at his house the next morning in the form of Samuel Graynamore, a businessman played with just the right amount of impish whimsy by Lloyd Bridges. Graynamore has learned about Joe’s circumstances. He knows that Joe is dying, that he used to be a heroic firefighter, and that he is now faced with figuring out what to do with his final days. Graynamore has a proposal for him. Graynamore’s superconductor business depends upon him working out a deal with the Waponi, the natives indiginous to the island Waponi Woo, which happens to be rich in Bubaru, the mineral that Graynamore needs for his superconductors. There is only one thing that the Waponi want, and Graynamore would like Joe to help him help them. All he needs Joe to do is jump into a volcano.
The Waponi people believe that the volcano on their island needs to be appeased with a voluntary human sacrifice every one hundred years. Understandably, none of the Waponi people want to jump into the volcano themselves. If Graynamore can find a volunteer, the Waponi will grant him the mineral rights to the island. If Joe will be the volunteer he needs, Graynamore will help him live out his last days like a king - providing a lavishly equipped cruise to the island where the Waponi people will greet him as a savior. For lack of anything better to do, Joe agrees. If nothing else, it should be an adventure.
Armed with Graynamore’s credit cards, Joe equips himself in New York City for his trip. He hires a limousine and chauffeur, Marshall (Ossie Davis), who helps him get what he needs. Marshall takes the idea seriously that “clothes make the man,” and Joe is slowly transformed over the course of the day. Now armed with fine clothes, a fresh haircut, and four high-end waterproof steamer trunks, Joe boards a plane to Los Angeles. Upon arrival, he is picked up by Graynamore’s daughter, Angelica, the second of the three roles played by Meg Ryan. In their short time together, Joe and Angelica bond, but it’s clear that Angelica is troubled. An inverse to DeDe, Angelica has every opportunity available to her, living comfortably off of her father’s money, but she is sadly discontent with her lot. Here, it is Joe that opts not to pursue her, not wanting to take advantage of someone so obviously lost.
Angelica drops Joe off at the docks where he will board Graynamore’s ship, the Tweedledee. For the journey, the ship will be captained by Graynamore’s other daughter, Patricia, the third character played by Meg Ryan. Patricia is meant to be wholly herself, in contrast to both DeDe and Angelica. Assertive, confident, brave, and only begrudgingly doing her father the favor of leading this trip in exchange for ownership of the Tweedledee when the ordeal is over.
The trip doesn’t go well. The ship is hit by a terrible storm, getting struck by lightning, and sinks, with everyone but Joe and Patrica still onboard. Joe rescues Patricia and manages to improvise a raft by roping his steamer trunks together, but she is unconscious and remains that way for days. He nurses her, keeping her shaded from the sun with an umbrella, gives her capfuls of water from his canteen as his own health deteriorates. After days at sea, delirious from dehydration and sunstroke, he thanks the moon for his life, and passes out. He wakes up, revived by a now conscious Patricia who has been nursing him. Shortly after, they are spotted and rescued by the natives of Waponi Woo.
Before getting into the next part of the plot, there is something worth addressing. The depiction of the Waponi people firmly places this film as a product of a different time. The Waponi are a broad caricature of Pacific Island peoples, played for laughs by white actors - most notably Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane. The mismatch is deliberate, and seemingly without intended malice, but it would go too far to say that it was, or even could be, self-aware enough to be exculpatory. The depiction is clearly intended to be akin to a Looney Tunes cartoon, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said it was racist and crossed a line.
Patricia and Joe are brought ashore. Again, somewhat reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy et al first arrive in Oz, they are both taken to be primped and pampered ahead of the feast that night. When the time comes, Joe is ready to jump into the volcano, but Patricia wants to talk him out of it. They’ve bonded, they love each other, but as Joe says, the timing stinks. Patricia talks him into letting the chief marry them before he leaps, and then, once married, she takes his hand and they leap into the volcano together.
A blast of hot air and smoke erupts out of the volcano, carrying them both up and out of the volcano, entirely clear of the island, dumping them both in the ocean. They watch in disbelief as the island begins to sink. Their circumstances dawn on them both in different ways. Each is thrilled to be alive, but Joe is focused on their treading water in the middle of the ocean, while Patricia is confident that things will ultimately work out. On cue, Joe’s trunks emerge from the ocean and we quickly cut to them both back on their tied together trunk raft.
The problem remains that Joe still has his “brain cloud.” While discussing it, though, Joe mentions Dr. Ellison, to which Patricia realizes that Joe has been set up. Dr. Ellison works for her father. He doesn’t have any other patients. He was clearly tasked with the job of finding a sucker to jump into a volcano for her father, and he succeeded. For a moment, while realizing he’s been duped, Joe starts to lapse back into his hypochondriac ways, but Patricia pulls him back, reminding him how great he has felt up until now, and that they now have a life to look forward to together. This is what they are musing on as their raft sails towards the horizon.
To some degree, the relationship at the center of this film is a bit besides the point, or at least not what it seems at first glance. While Meg Ryan is in the whole film, it is noteworthy that we don't meet Patricia until halfway through the story, and that she spends a significant portion of the later half of the movie unconscious. The trappings of this film are that it's a romantic comedy, but the heart of the film is Joe's evolving relationship with death, death concretized in the form of the volcano. At the end, it is Patricia's hand he's holding, but each of her characters along the way, as well as Marshall, are part of what got him to this point, where he is able to stand at the volcano's edge and take his leap. Even more importantly, they are all part of what gets him to the place where he can float off into the horizon with tranquil acceptance for whatever might come next.
Death comes for all of us in the end, and it will ultimately come for everyone in our lives. That everything ends is part of what imparts shape and meaning to the things that do happen, and the lives that people lead. Having a healthy perspective on that blunt truth is essential to being able to live any kind of a good life. At the same time, the fear that Joe has of death as a firefighter wasn't wrong. We can't help but accept that there is an unavoidable tension in the idea that death is simultaneously necessary, inevitable, and also bad. Joe's fear of death was appropriate, just carried too far, so far that he found himself living a life not worth living. His response to his terminal diagnosis improves the quality of his life, but here he carries things too far as well. The fact that he has grown so accepting of death that he is able to happily and bravely jump into a volcano isn't a great outcome for him either, considering he isn't actually sick at all. It's dumb luck that he and Patricia are saved. It's only once the two of them are dumped into the ocean that Joe exhibits his healthiest attitude towards death. He is appropriately concerned about their dire circumstances, but they have each other, and they will face whatever is to come with equanimity, neither rushing towards nor from death, taking what pleasure they can in whatever time they have left.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a useful film to me at the moment - less as a romantic comedy than as a fairy tale, with a clear moral about how we ought to live. The film opens with: "Once upon a time.." and closes with: "They lived happily ever after..." The happily ever after is an odd touch because we leave Joe and Patricia lost at sea, but there is something to the idea that we can live happily until whenever our “ever after” might come. That idea is some comfort to me in uncertain times like these.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.