Rated | Alphabetical
Versus The Volcano
John Patrick Shanley, 1990, USA
Posted: May 24, 2003
All right, I know what you're thinking. You're saying to yourself, "Clemenza,
how can you seriously consider this fluff as something worthy of your
consideration? Are you insane? Isn't this film just a cartoonish feel-good
flick?" The answers: yes, possibly, and no. My friends, think of film viewing as
a balanced diet. Sure, you need the big boys: the vitamin Cs, the potassium, and
the calcium. But what about the lesser-known contributors? The folic acid; the
niacin; the mighty zinc. You gotta have those too (I think).
Tom Hanks gives a great performance as Joe Banks, an everyman wasting away in
a dreadful nine-to-five purgatory. While Hanks' performance is solid, it's the
situation, rather than the performance, that strikes a chord with the audience.
Come on now, we've all worked, or know someone who has, for a maniacal boss in a
fluorescent- lighted shithole, trudging slowly toward the grave one workweek at
a time. The film does a fantastic job of capturing that worker's purgatory,
complete with the requisite gray industrial backdrop and zombie co-workers.
Quick plot synopsis: While in this purgatory, Joe Banks discovers he has an
incurable, fatal disease: a "brain cloud." This causes a sudden re-evaluation of
his miserable existence, and when a stranger offers him the chance to live like
a king, if at the end of his fling he agrees to jump into a volcano, Joe goes
But you can watch the film for the plot particulars. There's much more at
work here, including a Cinderella story of shorts. From rags to riches to, well,
that would be telling. But what I can tell you is that Joe Versus the Volcano
is a story about self-discovery. Only when faced with his own mortality does Joe
seek the answers to the questions that have plagued him his entire life. Who am
I? Who are you? These are questions he thought there would always be time to
ponder. How much time do I have? What am I spending my time doing? Am I living
life? Now, it helps when you can bounce these philosophical queries off of Meg
Ryan, but they are significant nonetheless. The trick here is that Hanks takes
this journey and deals with these heavy issues without a "heavy" performance.
It's a comedy, but it serves to spark the thought process, not to light the fire
for you. Rarely can a film entertain and ask such human questions, and still
work. This film does.
All philosophical ponderings aside, there is one additional factor that makes
this film one to watch. Yes, Hanks is great. Yes, Meg Ryan is beautiful. But one
thing, and one thing only, puts this film over the top. Two words: Abe Vigoda.
Abe's supporting role as the chief of the orange soda-drinking island tribe, the
Waponis, is pure genius. Think it through here. You're going to die. Soon. And a
rich man lets you live like a king for a week or so before you become the human
sacrifice of a native tribe to appease the Big Woo (that's the volcano). And
when you get there, the leader of the natives is freakin' Abe Vigoda!
C'mon, people -- somebody's gotta feel this! Vigoda Rules!
All things considered, Joe Versus The Volcano succeeds because it
remains within the boundaries of its aspirations, and its aspirations are well
defined. It's a lighthearted film about deeper human dilemmas, and Abe Vigoda.
Ostracize me if you will, but this film creates its own niche and then fills it
superbly. While not a heavy hitter like some other blockbusters, think of it as
the folic acid, niacin and even the zinc you allegedly need for a balance diet.
You may not know what they do, but you're better off because they exist. That's
this movie in a nutshell. How does it manage to avoid sappy sentimentality? Who
knows? But we're all better off for the existence of Abe Vigoda.
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