One of my favorite movies is a cult film called Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who also wrote Moonstruck. Although it’s maybe best described as a cross between a fairy tale and a screwball comedy, it deals with some of the most fundamental questions of life with fun but quirky humor.
Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is an ex-fireman who has spent the last four and a half years in a horrible job, in a horrible factory, working for a horrible boss. The opening credits are set to an iconic cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” performed by Eric Burdon. Burdon is former lead singer of The Animals, and has an amazing and distinctive voice—you probably remember “House of the Rising Sun” and other hits.
On the way from the parking lot, Joe steps in a puddle, soaking his shoe. He then catches the sole of his shoe on a security turnstile, tearing it loose. When Joe gets to his desk, he checks his shoe, but like everything about Joe’s work life, it’s hopeless. His co-worker DeDe (Meg Ryan) says: “Hi Joe, what’s with the shoe?” Joe says, “I think I’m losing my sole.” DeDe just says, “Yeah.” Losing your soul, and being soul-sick, is a recurring theme of this movie.
Joe doesn’t feel good, so he goes to see his doctor (Robert Stack). His doctor tells him he’s a hypochondriac, but discovers he has an obscure but fatal disease and Joe only has months to live. Broke from medical tests and now dying, Joe finally quits his lousy job and asks DeDe for a date—which doesn’t end well. I know, it doesn’t SOUND funny yet—trust me on this.
The next day, he meets Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), a wealthy businessman and force of nature, who tells Joe of a remote Pacific island with a giant volcano and a rare mineral used to make superconductors. Graynamore wants the mineral rights, but the only thing the natives want (besides orange soda) is a hero—a voluntary human sacrifice to appease their volcano god. Graynamore offers Joe the chance to live out the rest of his life in luxury, travel by private yacht to the island, receive a hero’s welcome, and then jump into the volcano—in short, to “Live like a king, die like a man, I say! What do you say?” Joe doesn’t have any better plans, so he agrees to do it.
The plot is zany, the cast great, and the soundtrack fun—but what I like best are all the little bits of life wisdom strewn along the way. One of the first people Joe meets on his journey is Marshall, his New York limousine chauffeur, played by the inimitable Ossie Davis. Marshall gets Joe geared up for his adventure, with new clothes, a new haircut, and a visit to a very memorable luggage salesman. Joe invites Marshall to dinner, but Marshall declines, saying: “I got the wife and kids at the end of the day. Ain’t you got nobody?” Joe replies, “No. But I figure, there are certain times in your life when you’re not supposed to have anybody, you know? There are certain doors you have to go through alone.” Marshall looks at Joe, smiles, and says, “Joe, you’re gonna be alright!” You don’t get that kind of life wisdom in every screwball comedy, and there’s more where that came from.
In L.A. Joe meets Graynamore’s unreliable daughter Angelica (also Meg Ryan) and then her half-sister Patricia (also Meg Ryan), who is to sail him to the island on the family yacht. One evening at sea, Patricia tells Joe: “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.” Yep, totally true—and a new twist on Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Joe eventually gets to the island, where the island tribal chief (Abe Vigoda) explains, “We are the children of children, and we live as we are shown.” That’s the essence of the human condition, in a nutshell—or a coconut shell. Joe is received as a hero and prepares for his final leap into the volcano.
I won’t give away the ending, but Joe gets a courageous new outlook on life—and some of Joe’s ideas rub off on us tagalong viewers too. So if you haven’t seen this movie, check it out! If you are up for a funny modern fairy tale (it even begins “once upon a time”), it will make you brave, wise, and happy!