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Film / Joe Versus the Volcano

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"Nobody knows anything, Joe. We'll take this leap, and we'll see. We'll jump, and we'll see. That's life, right?"

Joe Versus the Volcano is a 1990 Romantic Comedy film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their first of three screen pairings (followed by Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail). The film has a surreal, stylized tone befitting a fairy tale, with the fantastical and the mundane juxtaposed for comedy and pathos.

Hanks plays Joe Banks, a miserable everyman in a dead-end job with a Bad Boss. To make matters worse, Joe is diagnosed with a mysterious "brain cloud" that will kill him in six months. Enter Eccentric Millionaire Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), who is trying to acquire the rights to a rare mineral on a South Pacific island. The natives will only give him the mineral rights if he finds a hero to Appease the Volcano God for them. The millionaire hires Joe, who agrees to jump into the volcano at the end of a month of living it up on an all-expense-paid voyage. Hilarity Ensues.

Meg Ryan plays three different parts: the Bad Boss's mousy secretary DeDe, Graynamore's flighty daughter Anjelica, and Graynamore's other daughter, the free-spirited Patricia, who has a yacht and pilots Joe to the island. Dan Hedaya plays Mr. Waturi, the Bad Boss. Abe Vigoda, naturally, plays the chief of the Waponis.

A notorious flop when it was released in 1990, but in the years since it's been Vindicated by History to some extent. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who would have to wait 18 years for his next directing gig, the film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt.

This film provides examples of:

  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: The Waponis, who descend partially from ancient Jews, rescue Joe and Patricia while singing "Hava Nagila," an Ashkenazi-style folk Jewish song (which was written in the 20th century).
  • Almighty Janitor: More like "wise" than "almighty". The chauffeur that Joe hires gives him some pretty good advice and sets him on the right track.
  • Always Save the Girl: Joe nearly dies of dehydration because he gives Patricia all of the water while shipwrecked.
    Joe: (when a recovered Patricia gives him water to drink) That's for you!
  • Anachronism Stew: In the opening scene, workers arrive to a factory wearing trench coats and fedoras, aping the style from the first half of the 20th century and looking very incongruous with Joe's 1980s mullet. The rest of the story takes place firmly in the "modern" time of the film's 1990 release.
  • Animal Motif: There's a duck in the scene each time Joe is taken advantage of: there's a ceramic duck on the shelf of his doctor's office. Graynamore prominently displays the duck-shaped handle of his walking stick when he sells Joe on the idea of throwing himself into the volcano. When the male Waponis haze Joe by slapping him with fish and octopuses, the film cuts to a duck quacking nearby. All of this is foreshadowing that the doctor who falsely told Joe that he's dying is a "quack."
  • Anticlimax: At Joe's work, there is a large pipe with a massive wheel that has a sign that says "Do Not Close Valve." Joe decides to turn it after he finds out he's dying. Nothing happens, much to his disappointment.
  • Appease the Volcano God: The volcano god rejects Joe and Patricia and sinks the island.
  • Arc Symbol: A distinctive jagged line appears several times during the movie in the company's logo, the entrance to the factory, a crack in a wall, a lightning bolt, a tourism poster, the path up the volcano, and even appears in the title card on the film’s trailer as a lightning bolt that travels up it and strikes the top. Joe mentions the "crooked road" his entire life as been, which is represented as the line during all the important times of his life.
  • Arc Words:
    • Losing your soul. Foreshadowed by Joe losing his sole (of his shoe).
    • "Did I ever tell you? The first time I saw you, I felt like I'd seen you before."
  • Author Appeal: Watch Moonstruck and this film and note the similarities.
  • Bathos: The whole movie smoothly flows between silly jokes and genuine Magical Realism sweetness, often one right after the other. Even the premise qualifies: it's a thoughtful romantic drama about a terminally ill man trying to find love and contentment in his last few months of life before he completes his final obligation - jumping into a volcano.
  • Beautiful All Along: Joe getting his hair cut down to standard Tom Hanks length is treated like some great makeover.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Graynamore points to Joe that he was once one when he was a firefighter, and later Joe saves Patricia when she's knocked unconscious during the typhoon.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Joe and Patricia get an appropriately dramatic one during the typhoon, unfortunately the moment is rather severely ruined when a swinging boom knocks Patricia overboard.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Patricia, DeDe, and Angelica, respectively. Unusually for this trope, all played by the same actress.
  • Brain Fever: Joe's terminal "brain cloud".
  • Broken Record:
    Mr. Waturi: I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? Harry. Yeah, Harry. But can he do the job? I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you' Harry! Harry, Harry. Yeah, Harry, but can he do the job? I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? I'm not arguing that with you. Harry, I am not arguing that with you! Who said that? I didn't say that. If I said that, I would have been wrong. Maybe. Maybe. I'm not arguing that with you! Yeah, Harry, I know he can get the job. But can he do the job? I'm not arguing that with you! I am not arguing that with you! I am not arguing that with you! Who told you that? No! I told you that! Me! What? Maybe. Maybe, maybe. Maybe!
  • Chekhov's Gun: Everything we see Joe buy during his shopping spree gets seen again. Some of it, including the luggage, the violin case bar, the umbrella and the lantern have practical applications that save lives.
  • Chekhov's Volcano: The titular volcano that Joe has to encounter goes off in the end.
  • Chew Toy: Joe thinks he's the universe's.
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: Joe's poor prognosis drives the entire plot.
  • Cool Boat: The yacht "Tweedle Dee," which is so cool that it was dangled by Samuel Graynamore in front of his daughter Patricia (who knew him and his games well enough to not want to do anything more with him) as a bribe for her to be a (highly reluctant) part of Joe's eventual death by volcano.
  • Cool Old Guy: The tribe chieftain, much like every character played by Abe Vigoda.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Samuel Graynamore is not above making some poor random hypochondriac schmuck believe he has a terminal disease so he can come up to him and convince him to commit suicide via a Dare to Be Badass Face Death with Dignity speech in order to get exclusive rights for rare earth minerals.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: When Joe finally tells Patricia that he's going to die of a "brain cloud" in the finale, Patricia starts to laugh and asks what a brain cloud is and Joe starts trying to explain before pausing (because he doesn't know, either) and saying aloud that he should have tried to get a second opinion (which probably would have stopped the plot dead in its tracks, barring Graynamore paying off that doctor as well). Patricia then reiterates that a disease with such a silly name is probably fake and he should have.
  • Crapsack World: Joe's workplace, which we get a tour of to the tune of the mining song "16 Tons".
  • Dare to Be Badass: Graynamore's pitch to a dying Joe: live like a king, die like a man.
  • Death by Materialism: According to the Waponi chief, his people have been seduced by orange soda (given to them by Graynamore), and now none of them are willing to sacrifice themselves to appease their volcano god. Since none of them jump, the volcano god destroys the island.
  • Dream Sequence: More of a sun-induced fever dream, but still...
  • Eccentric Millionaire: Graynamore, who's not as kind as he seems, making a perfectly healthy man commit suicide by making him think he has a fatal disease.
  • Epiphanic Prison: Joe.
    Patricia: My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.
  • Esoteric Motif: Joe's "crooked road". Seen in the crooked sidewalk to the factory, the crooked road from the airport, the lightning that sinks the yacht, and the crooked path to the top of the volcano, all in the same lightning bolt shape.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Joe trying to save a single flower sticking out of the pavement on his way to work neatly establishes both his fundamental helplessness and his ultimate decency.
  • Every Man Has His Price: Patricia is snarky and nasty to Joe at first, but she explains that her father bribed her with the Tweedle Dee to help him with his plan. She's angry that she discovered she did have a price and what the price was (the boat.)
    Patricia: I’ve always kept clear of my father’s stuff ever since I got out on my own. And now he’s pulling me back in. He knew I wanted this boat and he used it and he got me working for him, which I swore I would never do. I feel ashamed because I had a price. He named it and now I know that about myself. And I could treat you like I did back out on the dock, but that would be me kicking myself for selling out, which isn’t fair to you.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: A brief one, in which Joe realizes that he was tricked by Graynamore and the doctor who was obviously in Graynamore's pay.
    Joe: I still have a problem. I have a brain cloud.
    Patricia: A brain cloud...what is a brain cloud?
    Joe: It's—well, maybe I should get a second opinion.
  • Face Palm: The Waponi Chief gives one reacting to his klutzy gong ringers.
  • Fairy Tale: The film doesn't hide its intent to make the story a modern fairy tale, opening with Once Upon a Time and ending with Happily Ever After.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Joe packs three books when he leaves his job: Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey.
    • Joe's Hula girl lamp as well, which has a Polynesian volcano with the same crooked road lava flow, a hula girl, a yacht, and a giant moon.
  • A Fête Worse than Death: Attempted and averted. While Joe is willing to leap into the volcano, it spits him out and triggers the island's destruction, showing that willingness isn't enough — it has to be informed willingness, and the deception inflicted upon Joe excluded him as a viable sacrifice.
  • Gigantic Moon: A giant moon silhouettes Joe as he's floating around on his luggage raft. Justified, as Joe is hallucinating from the effects of exposure and dehydration.
  • Happily Ever After: Played straight.
  • Homage: According to Word of God, the "Sixteen Tons" opening is a tribute to Metropolis, which is probably why everyone is dressed like they're in the 1930s for this sequence only.
  • Important Haircut: Joe gets one. Lampshaded by Cassie and Marshall: "You're coming into focus, kid."
  • Induced Hypochondria: Joe's PTSD of being in danger every day of his life as a fireman made him hyper-aware of his own mortality.
  • Innocently Insensitive: The luggage salesman tells terminally ill Joe that he hopes he lives to be 1,000. To his credit, Joe just smiles at the Irony.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The Waponis. It's strongly implied that since none of the natives were brave enough to pick from one of their own, the Volcano God rejected the replacements and destroyed the island instead.
  • Lava Pot Volcano: The titular volcano is filled with a sea of molten lava.
  • Leap of Faith: Patricia invokes it by saying they'll jump into the volcano together as a leap of faith; it's a metaphor for the leap of faith that making the commitment to be with one person for the rest of your life.
  • Like You Were Dying: Joe is inspired to live large in the few remaining months he has left. This is how he's convinced by Graynamore's sales pitch of living like a king before sacrificing himself.
  • MacGuffin: The rare mineral Boobaroo, which is why Graynamore wants the island.
  • Magical Realism: The film blends the mundane with the fantastical in a way that rarely feels jarring, thanks to its stylized and somewhat surreal tone.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: All three versions of Meg Ryan's character serve to help break Joe out of his shell and push him into the path of enlightenment. The first two don't go far enough with him, but Patricia turns out to be his soul mate.
  • Mean Boss: Mr. Waturi. Where to start. He's constantly yelling on the phone, he gives Joe grief about going to the doctor, he doesn't allow Joe to have a decorative lamp on his desk, he's just an overall bastard.
    "Do you think I feel good? Nobody feels good. After childhood, it's a fact of life. I feel rotten. So what?"
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Ellison clearly does not deserve his degree, but you don't find that out until the final scene.
  • Motif: Apart from the Arc Symbol of the jagged crooked road, there's also a motif of Joe raising his arms to heaven. He does it when he's overcome with frustration during his morning walk to work at the beginning and again when he's dancing with joy atop his luggage in the second act.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Meg Ryan, of course. Not as much with her role as DeDe (who is attractive in her own way), but as Anjelica and Patricia, she wears some quite attractive and revealing outfits.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The steamer trunk is introduced by a Cherubic Choir. Turns out it becomes very important to the plot.
  • Nautical Knockout: This happens to Patricia during a storm, knocking her out. Joe jumps in to save her, hero that he is.
  • No Ending: Lampshaded by Joe that he and Patricia are in the middle of nowhere. Patricia Hand Waves this and just smiles, "It's always gonna be something with you, isn't it?" If you watch the full end credits, the final scene shows them rescued by a boat in a background picture format. There's more hope for a happy ending for the two of them than it seems.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Joe's workplace is an office inside an industrial factory with large pipes and open flames all over the place. Before leaving on his last day, he's inspired to open the dangerous-looking "main valve," only to be disappointed when nothing happens.
  • Please Wake Up: Subtly, after Joe sings "The Cowboy Song" to an unconscious Patricia.
    Joe: Giddyap.
  • Poorly Timed Confession: In the climax where Patricia "confesses" to Joe that she loves him... right before he is supposed to face his titular opponent.
    Patricia: I love you.
    Joe: I love you, too! I've never been in love with anybody before, either! It's great! I'm glad! ...But the timing stinks. I gotta go.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Joe's Moment of Awesome.
    Joe: You look terrible, Mr. Waturi. You look like a bag of shit stuffed in a cheap suit. Not that anyone could look good under these zombie lights. I, I, I, I can feel them sucking the juice out of my eyeball. Suck, suck, suck, SUCK... (makes a sucking noise) For 300 bucks a week, that's the news. For 300 bucks a week, I've lived in this sink, this used rubber.
    Mr. Waturi: You watch it, mister! There's a woman here!
    Joe: Don't you think I know that, Frank? Don't you think I am aware there is a woman here? I can smell her, like, like a flower. I can taste her, like sugar on my tongue. When I'm 20 feet away I can hear the fabric of her dress when she moves in her chair. Not that I've done anything about it. I've gone all day, every day, not doing, not saying, not taking the chance for 300 bucks a week, and Frank, the coffee stinks, it's like arsenic. The lights give me a headache. If the lights don't give you a headache, you must be dead; let's arrange the funeral.
    Mr. Waturi: You better get outta here right now! I'm telling you!
    Joe: You're telling me nothing. And why, I ask myself, why have I put up with you? I can't imagine, but now I know. Fear. Yellow freakin' fear. I've been too chicken shit afraid to live my life so I sold it to you for 300 freakin' dollars a week! You're lucky I don't kill you! You're lucky I don't rip your freakin' throat out! But I'm not going to! And maybe you're not so lucky at that. 'Cause I'm gonna leave you here, Mr. Wahoo Waturi, and what could be worse than that?
  • Retired Badass: Of sorts. Joe's old job was as a firefighter, rushing into burning buildings and saving people.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Delivered to the fourth wall with an Aside Glance.
    Chief: I'm going now.
  • Shopping Montage: Joe's spending spree in Manhattan, with plenty of Product Placement for stores like Hammacher Schlemmer. A rare male example.
  • Soul-Crushing Desk Job: Joe works in an oppressive office with aggressive florescent lighting and an awful boss. When he learns that he has a brain cloud, he finally gets the courage to tell off his boss and quit his job.
  • Stealth Pun: The Animal Motif of the recurring duck foreshadows that Joe's doctor is a "quack." Patricia calls him a quack in the end.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Joe quits after finding out he has a terminal disease, and gives the above "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: The Waponis are known for their love of orange soda. (And use the cans to decorate their clothing like ornaments.)
  • Unobtainium: Boobaroo, the rare mineral that is a tremendous superconductor. Though since the properties of the material are never relevant to the movie's plot, it's more of a Macguffin - it could have been a normal precious metal, gems, anything like that. It just had to be something so incredibly rare and valuable that Graynamore couldn't get himself through conventional means.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Graynamore and his doctor tricked Joe into thinking he was dying to get him to jump in a volcano to win some Unobtainium.
  • Versus Title: Joe's "battle" with the volcano never happens anyway.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: The Waponis love orange soda, and are a mix of Polynesian, Jewish, and Roman, and Celtic culture.
  • You Look Familiar: Meg Ryan plays three roles, and it's invoked. "Did I ever tell you that the first time I saw you, I felt I'd seen you before?" Joe mentions how he keeps meeting the same people in his life. The filmmakers said this was to symbolize how the same woman can seem completely and totally different depending on when in your life you meet her. When Joe meets the first woman played by Meg Ryan, she's someone he's dreamed about but upon actually getting her, finds she's shallow and fearful... like his adult life has been for the last few years. The second woman is flighty and obsessed with the material and ultimately empty... Joe's transition between his old life and new way of living, where he accumulates numerous possessions but is still alone and acutely aware that he is. The third is both outspoken and independent, but still not sure of her lot in life and frustrated with the connections that drag her down... this is how Joe feels as he begins to come to terms with the end of his life but still finds himself clinging to it. It's this woman that Joe spends the most time with and connects with, and so they grow together into a complete whole.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Joe is given six months to live due to a "brain cloud."


Video Example(s):


Luggage Salesman

You can feel his passion for luggage pulsating even though he neve raises his voice.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / ColdHam

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