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  Joe Versus The Volcano
John Patrick Shanley, 1990, USA
Rating: 3.7

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 for it.

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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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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