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The Funniest Movie About Suicide You'll Ever See:
 
By
Frank

First of all, I want to say that I love the following things that happen to be in Joe Versus The Volcano: orange soda, Manhattan, stylized Manhattan skylines, stories that take place on tropical islands, teak wood sail boats, fiction films with a philosophical bend, stories that take place on the ocean or right near it, the songs "Good Lovin'" and "Mas Que Nada", and stories about major shifts in people's lives. This is being noted both to release myself from any predisposed unarticulated preferences in this review, and to support any articulated preferences in the same. The concept of this film isn't high in a modern, Hollywood sense, but lofty in a socio-economic one. In summary, it's a simple story about a man who's life takes a sudden, jarring turn and how he chooses to face this unique predicament. But it's so much more than that. The story, the characters, the casting, the settings, the dialog, the contrast between modern city living and a technologically primitive society...it's simply one of the most interesting, and yes, fun, allegory on death ever written. It's not too surprising, in that light, that it was both conceived and written by a screenwriter who was first a playwright.

The title is both intentionally understated and seeds curiosity, and succeeds in achieving both. The volcano in the film actually represents fear, and, interestingly, the title straightforwardly communicates the story before the house lights are cold. The stakes in this film are the second highest, after the threat of death, that they could possibly be: attaining self-respect in the face of certain death. The structure of the movie is linear, which suits this story perfectly. Jumping back, for example, to show Joe's heroics in the fire department or maybe snippets of the two Graynamore (love that character name for a "classy" family) sister's childhoods would have slowed down the film and interrupted the balancing act of character and theme in it. The pace of the film is perfectly medium. In terms of genre, it's not a melodrama or really even a drama about life and death, nor is there much physical danger in the entire movie. I think it could be argued that this film is THE definition of a dramedy, the comedy/drama.

The first of its two great strengths (both provided by Shanley), the films characters are sharply drawn yet not cliche. Their emotional lucidity (positive and negative) always keeps them from that. "Average" Joe, the lead, is really very interesting as a once truly heroic person who has retreated within himself as to be almost unrecognizable to the audience's collective concept of a hero or to himself. The three characters of Dee-Dee, Angelica and Patricia are all crystal clear in uniquely contrasting ways rarely rendered in major studio films. The incidental characters are just as unique yet realistic as well. It's as if you're meeting the archetype of each of them, and all of them have a hint of an objective, slightly philosophical bend (this of course allows Joe's character to "arc" in his interaction with them).

The second of Shanley's great strengths in this piece is his dialog. The film has the feel of a play without the stage's locale limitation, and the dialogue is the element that establishes this tone the most. While never either "on the nose" nor wasted, it serves the characters, scenes and theme and has that inexplicable, memorable quality. It's probably just Shanley's talent. He is absolutely exceptional at taking a scene to an un-expected ending believably. This can be seen in "Moonstruck", "Alive", "Doubt"...everything. He finds the irony, humor, and pathos in this plot and story, and allows the characters to articulate it in this screenplay with tongues of both crackle and honey. How fun is it that Shanley lets prim Angelica characterize her cracked crab meal as "good little monsters" and then literally wail away?! Another fun and colorful characterization are invented words like "bubaru" (a mineral) and "Waponi Woo" (the South Pacific island that Joe travels to); little fantastical elements there that add to the style. The romantic and atmospheric words Shanley uses to tell the tales of the bubaru and the Waponi history are well chosen and effective in establishing mood.

The acting is first rate, with each major, supporting and incidental character interpreted so tight as to be seamless. Meg Ryan's triple performance (right up there with Alec Guinness' multi-portrayal in 1949's "Kind Hearts and Coronets") as Joe's cowardly co-worker and both significantly different Graynamore sisters is my personal favorite work of hers after her interpretation of Sally Albright in "When Harry Met Sally". Lloyd Bridges as the conniving, avuncular Samuel Graynamore is so likeable in his one scene with Joe, it's easy to be horrified later in the film when we find out what he tried to do to him, and what kind of sociopath it would take to attempt it (no spoilers here). The dialogue in his scene is some of my favorite in the movie.

Arguably the third of Joe Versus The Volcanos' greatest strengths is its casting (a huge nod to Marion Dougherty who, unsurprisingly, also cast Lenny, Batman [1989], The World According To Garp, Ladyhawke, The Lost Boys, Lethal Weapon 1-4, and Immortal Beloved). With walk-on and supporting roles, the filmmakers gathered a group of perfect-fit lead types and character actors: Dan Hedaya's interpretation of Joe's boss is the epitome of¬ bullying dominance and jealous destructiveness. A pitch-perfect supporting performance, both hilarious and with pathos; Robert Stack as Joe's physician - the perfect voice for "bad news from a doctor"; Ossie Davis as Marshall the company limousine man - again, pitch-perfect portraying a short but meaningful relationship with a stranger. Davis makes you see, hear and feel the family he goes home to from his job every early-evening; Barry McGovern's scene-stealing luggage salesman - sooo memorable; Carol Kane's funky little two-line walk-on as Joe's hairdresser was perfectly filled by her. "Shazam!!" Yeah, baby! The same is done by Amanda Plummer as Dagmar, Patricia's ship navigator with her usual internationally-flavored, "where is that accent from?" intimate quality she has. Abe Vigoda as the off-put, paternal, Waponi Jewish-Polynesian-Celtic chief is both perfectly cast and, again, I have to use this description here, pitch-perfect. ¬

The production design of Bo Welch (who also did "The Color Purple", "Beetlejuice", and "Wild Wild West") is a slightly exaggerated style of each of the environments in the film - Joe's New Jersey apartment, a factory, New York, Los Angeles, the Pacific Ocean, and the island of Waponi Woo that are never cartoonish or garish. They are, working with the cinematography, "hyper-realistic". Colors, rarely primary, are extremely muted until Joe agrees to take "the job" from Graynamore. The shift is noticeable starting with the scenes of Joe shopping in New York (vibing as a multi-cultural heaven here; Los Angeles is playfully portrayed as false where image IS substance). Flowers are also used as a symbol of rebirth. The use of romantic symbols in the story such as a stylistically colored Manhattan skyline, a sailor on a corner, a moonlit look-out point, New York and Los Angeles at night, and the tropical island itself suit the story and theme. I think it's possible that the use of the green filter right before the typhoon is used to represent the power of nature or something "alien" (that's right around the corner).

Speaking of theme, this is the film's greatest non-technical strength. Something near "life is a short adventure, live every day as if it were your last". Joe learns to cherish life, especially HIS life, as he did when he was a fireman dealing with tragedy and joy on a daily basis. Ironically, when traveling to the place where his life will end, he meets people and situations that remind him how much every day of life is not worth wasting. One thing I really like about the film is that Joe forgives Angelica's behavior overnight before their breakfast. Six main thematic symbols are used in the film: 1) The image of a lightning bolt appears 6 times (the factory walkway to Joe's workplace, as part of the factory's logo, as a graphic on Joe's beloved kitschy lamp shade, a crack in the drywall in Joe's apartment, the bolt itself that maroons Joe and Patricia, and the tropical path to the volcano on the island). In these contexts, it can only represent "change" or even "fate", if you believe in that sort of thing. 2) The hypochondiral cough Joe has before he is told by Doctor Ellison "the news" (like how I avoided the spoiler there?) :). Symbolizing fear, the cough disappears and only returns at the end of the film. The volcano itself also represents fear, into which Joe must "jump" from his safe "life", no matter how soon it's ending. 3) The mention of the word (or concept of a) soul is spoken in the film 4 times, with one being a play on words with "sole" for "soul": In the film's opening within the lyrics of the song "16 Tons", when Dee Dee questions Joe about his shoe at work (the "sole" play on words), when Patricia tells Joe she is "soul sick", and on the island when Joe asks the chief what the totem he is holding is. By snapping himself out of the fear that was driving his life, Joe has indeed saved his own soul (with inspiration from Marshall, Angelica, and Patricia) by choosing love and community over fear and isolation. 4) Joe leaves his hat behind twice, paralleling the symbol of "change" the lightning bolt represents. This happens once in his factory office and once on the Los Angeles dock. 5) The concept of "jumping": Joe must make an existential "leap" both into the emotional unknown and physically into the volcano (representing fear; he also gives Angelica the advice of "leaping" into a life she's scared of failing at); the orange soda the Waponis have procured is "Jump" brand; plus, more abstractly Joe and Patricia "taking the plunge" or "making the leap" into marriage. 6) Ducks and their image are used in the film to represent "quack" medicine (in the hands of Dr. Ellison and the Waponis), and Samuel Graynamore's underhanded plot connection with Ellison the quack in the form of a cane top. A sub-theme is a socio-economic one of the wealthy "playing god" with the non-wealthy, even to the point of death, to satisfy their "deserved", insatiable economic selfishness.

Many different things to many people, "Joe Versus The Volcano" is one of those films that is so perfectly itself it seems like it just appeared, like other exceptional films such as "It's a Wonderful Life", "Rear Window" and "E.T.", rather than actually being made. I never thought it fair that this film was and is labeled "quirky" basically because it includes the concept of suicide. Spoilers schmoilers...the volcano doesn't kill Joe. Different or uncomfortably taboo in a culture doesn't equate as without merit or unworthy of social admiration. "Joe Versus The Volcano" is a gem of a film that has deservedly gained a much wider home media life since its theatrical release. I suppose it also has a little sentimental appeal to me because I saw it 2, maybe 3 times in the theater on its first run when I was 19 in 1990, and once had a conversation about it with a good friend of mine that passed away in 1993. As Joe thanks even the possibility of a higher power for his life under an enormous harvest moon on a castaway's raft when he assumes he isn't going to live, many filmgoers have a wonderfully talented crew and cast, from Spielberg to carpenters to Shanley to production assistants to thank for this story-bookish, wonderful, tropical gem that has enriched so many filmgoer's and filmmaker's lives.

-Frank

May 27, 2009