Overlooked Movies – No.1

The Arts


Why did a movie that should have been a sure-fire box office success bomb so badly? ‘Joe Versus The Volcano’ tanked despite its star credentials, but why?

It had the production support of Steven Spielberg and the starpower of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It had a great writer; John Patrick Shanley, who wrote ‘Moonstruck’ and (later) ‘Alive’. But it had some problems. It was whimsical. It was nice. Nobody got hurt. There were no guns. And it took pleasure in the sound of words.

It had another problem. It was also utterly original. I often turn to the reviews of the late, great Roger Ebert, who wrote as the man of the street, but with the passion of a movie geek. Here’s the opening paragraph of his review:

‘Gradually during the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not “Joe Versus the Volcano.” It is not an entirely successful movie, but it is new and fresh and not shy of taking chances. And the dialogue in it is actually worth listening to, because it is written with wit and romance.’

So, the story, because like nearly all unfashionable films, it has a good story: Joe goes to his grim office every day, dreaming of South Pacific romance. He keeps a tropical light on his desk to fend off the tic-making neon panels overhead. When he tries for a day off because he’s not feeling good, his boss replies, ‘Of course not! Nobody ‘feels good’!’

He goes to the doctor for a check-up and the doctor finds something worse. A ‘brain cloud’ that’s about to kill him. It’s a lucky thing, he points out, that Joe came to the doctor with an entirely different problem because they found the thing that’s going to kill him.

Lloyd Bridges turns up with a deal; he owns a Pacific island where the natives make a human sacrifice to a volcano every year. If they can’t placate their volcano god, they won’t give Lloyd the rare mineral they mine there. Joe can have anything he desires until the time comes for him to jump into the volcano. He quits his job and buys special luggage for the voyage. The scene alone is worth the price of admission, but for some peculiar reason no version of it will load here.

There are three women in Joe’s life, his mousey co-worker, the Californian girl who’s hired to look after him (‘It’s no use talking to me, I’m a flibbertigibbert’) and the lovely captain of his yacht, all played by Meg Ryan, in the same way that Deborah Kerr played all the women in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’.

Nathan Lane plays the tribal chief. Joe asks what sort of ceremony they’ll have for the sacrifice, only to be told, ‘Nothing, you just jump in.’ So by this time he’s in love and regained his zest for life, with just two problems; he’s about to die, and he’s about to die.

The film has an oddly intense, magical quality that can’t be destroyed by its 1990 SFX or by Hanks’ mullet. It’s filled with repeated symbols and dialogue. Perhaps all this was simply too strange for audiences. It remains largely unloved and unremembered, yet it spawned T-shirts that signify its cult status. One says ‘Take Me To The Volcano’, the other says ‘I’m Not Arguing That With You’, after Joe’s boss’s phone call:

For me though, it’s the oddities that provide the pleasing surprises. Given Hollywood’s massive media output, it’s perhaps inevitable that a strange and wonderful personal projects slip through the corporate net. The revamped site should run clips on your devices, so I’ll do my best to track a few of these global oddities down.

4 comments on “Overlooked Movies – No.1”

  1. Paul Graham says:

    With reference to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimph, would any of Powell and Pressburger’s movies be commissioned by a major studio today? Though, on second thoughts perhaps if you pitched Blimph as David Lowe’s “Comic Strip” character, you be in with a chance!

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    This one I saw. Liked it, too, and I guessed I’d have given it 4 stars.

  3. Lee Graham says:

    Umm, the Chief was Abe Vigoda I think, not Nathan Lane.

  4. Trace Turner says:

    This film is clearly the best of the Hanks/Ryan films. I loved it when it was released and every time I saw it afterwards. Thanks for reminding me about it – I need to see it again soon.

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