The Movie (3/5)
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan teamed up in the 1990s to create some my mom’s favorite movies. I vividly recall her watching Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail on VHS, and owning the soundtrack to at least one of them. That soundtrack, I think it was You’ve Got Mail, became a staple of our car rides during my childhood, and I still remember many of its tracks from memory today. My mom’s love for this popular screen pairing however, did not extend to their first partnership on the screen, Joe Versus the Volcano. Released in 1990 by Warner Bros. to mild box office returns and mixed critical reviews, it takes a different approach than the Hanks and Ryan films of the later 90s, pushing for a more introspective and serious approach to the romantic comedy. So, the real question is, does it work?
Joe Versus the Volcano drops us into the middle of Joe Banks’ daily routine. He trudges through the entrance of a dreary looking factory, surrounded by miserable co-workers, and lands at a depressingly mundane desk job at the advertising department of said factory. Feeling permanently miserable, he takes off to visit the doctor’s, only to find out that he’s been diagnosed with an incurable brain cloud – a patch of decaying tissue that will spread through his entire brain in 6 months, killing him. After quitting his job and scaring away one of his female co workers, he’s approached by a businessman, Sam Greynamore, who makes him a proposition; he wants Joe to jump into a volcano on the island of Waponi Woo to appease the natives, allowing him access to a valuable resource locked away on the island. In exchange, he offers Joe one final chance to go out in style, with lavish hotels, and access to every credit card he could imagine. Taking him up on his offer, Joe sets off on a glamorous adventure, meeting Sam’s two daughters, Angelica and Patricia, and eventually becoming stranded on the ocean with Patricia as they travel to Waponi Woo by boat from Los Angeles. Together, the two of them discover what it means to truly love another person, as they’re faced with the horrifying reality of Joe’s sacrifice.
Right off the bat, this movie sets a bleak, dreary tone through the imagery and music it uses to introduce Joe’s workplace. The photography is dark, shadows are overblown, and everything is portrayed through blues, blacks, and greys. The lighting is so exaggerated that everyone looks like they’ve been dead for a couple of days, and it just cements you in a world of misery. It’s incredibly effective at allowing us to empathize with Joe’s dead end situation, but it leaves zero room for comedy at all during the film’s first act, which walks us through the motion of explaining Joe’s dire situation. It’s great for drama, but doesn’t really fulfill the movie’s advertised promise of romantic comedy.
The film’s second act, which follows Joe through his shopping spree and trip to Los Angeles from where he takes to the sea to travel to Waponi Woo gets a little closer, but it can’t really seem to figure out if it still wants to be an insightful drama or a comedy. Joe hires a limo driver, and befriends him by explaining his situation. This leads to a goofy day of galavanting through New York City’s upper class shopping district, but then Joe hops on a plane to LA and the tone pulls a complete 180. There he meets Sam’s daughter, Angelica, who has been tasked with seeing to it that Joe makes it to the Graynamore’s boat on time the next morning. There it’s revealed that she feels washed up and useless, very much aligning with Joe’s feelings during his time in New York. It brings the movie right back down from the comedic heights of his shopping trip, and grounds the movie in cinematic misery.
The third act feels like the movie finally figured out what it wanted to be, and becomes your standard Hanks-Ryan romcom of sorts. Once he’s freed of Angelica Graynamore, he’s saddled with Patricia Graynamore, whose boat he is supposed to take to Wapani Woo. Here, the film finally loosens up a bit, leaving room for insightful human drama, but also striking a balance between the characters’ sad existences and fun, zany comedic moments. It’s too little, too late unfortunately; the has film already spent too much time examining miserable characters in sad situations. This portion of the film compresses all of the usual chemistry building between these two characters into a single third of the movie, rather than allowing it to build naturally over the entire 102 minute runtime. It screams of a lack of defined vision for the production behind the scenes; director John Patrick Shanley and his crew have constructed a movie that never feels totally confident as a drama, but that’s where it really succeeded. It’s like their producers reminded them that it was supposed to be a comedy, and everyone woke up and crammed a comedy into the last third of the movie.
Beyond its uncomfortably crammed pacing and narrative deficients, Joe Versus the Volcano is a competently acted and designed production. Meg Ryan steals the show here, playing three separate female characters, each with a distinct personality and personal issues to bring to the table. She plays a different character in each act of the film, helping to revitalize Joe in different ways with each character. Hanks turns in a competent performance, helping to sell us on Joe’s character arc, even if it is a bit rushed in the final act. He plays the perfect everyman, and still does to this day. The supporting cast is full of small, mostly bit parts, but Nathan Lane turns in a small cameo as a member of the tribe that lives of Waponi Woo; it’s more interesting that’s he there than the role he plays is interesting though. The sets used to create the island and the various presented locations in NYC and LA are well decorated, and feel authentic.
There’s some interesting stuff here with Joe Versus the Volcano, but it kind of feels like two distinctly different movies, with some comedy thrown in at the end of fulfill a promise. It’s challenging and engaging in its first two acts, examining the lives of people who kind of sulk their way through life, but it defies expectations and will turn off those who jumped into the movie expecting a classic Hanks-Ryan romantic comedy. The third act is basically an entire movie crammed into 40 minutes of screen time, and is classic Hanks-Ryan, but betrays the introspective, misery-scented first two acts. It isn’t all bad, and it isn’t all good. It feels conflicted. So, to answer the question I posed above, it doesn’t really work, but what we have here is still really interesting.
The Video (4/5)
Joe Versus the Volcano was shot on 4-perf 35mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses, resulting in a final projected aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film has been given a brand new HD master by the Warner Archive team. It is presented here in 1080p resolution, in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Joe’s first act is not a great representation of all that this film has to offer visually. It’s oppressively dark, intentionally, and has terrible contrast and tons of softness. In their attempt to create a dreary world for Joe to exist in, they had to sacrifice a lot of visual definition to create such a look photochemically. Once Joe heads into the shopping district, and then to LA, the film takes on a different look. It becomes colorful, substantially sharper, and the murky grain that lurked in the shadows earlier is now well defined and adds excellent texture. It’s like a completely different movie. Detail ticks up noticeably once we head into the LA sequence, and beyond to Joe and Patricia’s trip to Waponi Woo, outside of the film’s softer wide shots. Warner Archive’s new presentation faces an uphill climb due to source limitations, but once it’s allowed to breath, it becomes something truly special for such a conflicted movie.
The Audio (3.5/5)
Joe Versus the Volcano was originally shown in theaters using a Dolby Stereo optical soundtrack. That track has been remixed here to be presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound.
As far as 6 track surround sound mixes go, Joe’s is pretty basic for a 1990 production. Dialogue and the majority of the action is locked to the front channels, mostly to the center channel. Sound effects and dialogue are occasionally tossed to the front stereo speakers, and the surround and subwoofer are used sparingly, even during the lightning storm sequence. The multi channel experience is mostly used to fill the soundscape with the various licensed music tracks heard throughout the film. I went in with pretty low expectations here, and they were adequately met for such a film.
Special Features/Packaging (2.5/5)
Joe Versus the Volcano has been released to Blu-ray by Warner Archive in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The front artwork features the film’s theatrical poster, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in character standing atop Joe’s lavish luggage, set against an impressive full moon over the ocean. The back artwork features a shot of the two once they reach the island, a strip of other scenes and character shots, as well as a review quote, two paragraphs about the film, a list of special features, theatrical credits, and technical specs for the release. A standard looking Blu-ray package job if there ever was one.
Onto the features:
Behind the Scenes Featurette – a legacy feature, shot for TV and shown around the time of the film’s original release. The main cast members discuss their characters, their motivations, and what the film is about. It spoils the end of the film, which is kind of goofy, and I’ll bet frustrating for those who saw it back in the day.
Music Video – a music video of the song “Sixteen Tons” by Eric Burdon, which was featured in the film’s first act. The artist mostly prances around a set inspired by the factory for which Joe works, with shots from the film intercut into his band’s performance.
Theatrical Trailer – the film’s trailer, as seen in the time leading up to its release before other movies in theaters.
I’ll always take a couple extras over none, but a commentary track or a new interview with one of the cast members would have been pretty cool, especially when the packaging doesn’t break any new ground. Oh well.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: None
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (English)
Runtime: 102 minutes
Joe Versus the Volcano isn’t a bad movie, it just feels like it bit off a little more than it could chew early on in production, and the producers at Amblin decided to step in and shift gears a bit during the film’s third act to create a more standard romantic comedy style of ending. It’s held up by strong performances from Hanks and Ryan, and as long as expectations are adjusted, is still a very interesting viewing experience. The folks at the Warner Archive have done a splendid job bringing the film to Blu-ray, with decent video and audio, serviceable packaging, and a few legacy extras to help sweeten the pot. This new release will absolutely please already existing fans of the film, and might serve as a good chance for those who missed the boat the first time around to reevaluate the film for yourself. Recommended.