Joe Versus the Volcano ★★★

"What's with the shoe?"
"I'm losing my sole."

Technically speaking, Joe Versus the Volcano is a 90's rom-com featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but in reality you'd be hard pressed to find a more misleading description. Hanks plays Joe Banks, a hypochondriac ex-fireman who now works in a mindless, joyless office job and feels sick all the time. He goes to the doctor and learns that he's not actually sick—except for an incurable, terminal disease that has no symptoms, and it's only because of his persistent but psychosomatic fear of illness that they discovered the mystery disease at all. It's a comedy about enjoying life while it lasts, which could also be said about 90's Hanks/Ryan vehicles like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, but the tone is so much darker and stranger and more outlandish that it doesn't feel like it's in the same category at all.

At the time of its release, Joe Versus the Volcano was praised by a few critics like Roger Ebert, but it was largely rejected by popular audiences, and it's not hard to see why. This is the type of movie that must be a nightmare for the marketing department: you can't quite sell it as a black comedy because of the blatant emotional sentiment, but you definitely can't sell it as a straight-up romantic comedy because of the bleak premise. The problem is that it has a very unique, eccentric tone. It's all about a young man facing an untimely death, but it's pitched with a certain level of joyful style that makes it play out to hilarious effect. Whether you go into it expecting it to be either light or dark, you'll probably be surprised by what you get.

Like most films that have to wait until home video to find their main audience, Joe Versus the Volcano has a difficult tone, but nonetheless a consistent and justified one. At one point, Meg Ryan (who plays three different characters in the film) explains that her father felt that the few people in the world who were really "awake" live in a "constant state of amazement," and this is basically the way the movie itself presents the world. It is in a constant state of amazement about everything from the tragedy of Joe's medical condition to the wonder of love and true human connection. This amazement is communicated primarily through the heightened stylistic choices (especially in terms of the visual design and soundtrack), and although it occasionally clashes with the content of the story, it is ultimately an accurate representation of its characters' view of their world.

This stylistic excess also delivers one of the film's more fascinating thematic undercurrents. One of Meg Ryan's characters (the same one that delivers the above quote, actually) paints pictures that say, "This is a real scene," ironically calling attention to the artifice of the image by declaring its reality. This contradiction embodies the movie's own portrayal of reality: it offers artificially inflated scenes that call attention to their own artifice by too loudly declaring how real they are. This emotional excess points toward a hyperrealism which arises from its constructed nature. And yet it somehow portrays this reflexive artifice without ever feeling distanced or ironic. It embraces its own hyperrealism with wide eyes and open heart, somehow finding true emotions in a constructed reality.

The strongest hand behind the scenes seems to be the production designer, Bo Welch, a man perhaps best known for working with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. He creates sets that are both visually and emotionally dark, but he also combines them with a childlike glee and innocence which shouldn't work in that context but somehow does anyway. Here he's also pulling from German expressionist roots (particularly Metropolis) and combining them with a Terry Gilliam-esque dystopia that feel like a spin-off of Brazil. But what's most impressive here is his range: he goes from these bleak beginnings to something much more colorful and outright silly when we get to the island of orange-soda-worshipping natives.

If it sounds like there's a lot going on in Joe Versus the Volcano then you're absolutely right, and I imagine this almost scatterbrained variety and off-the-walls grab-bag of stylistic influences and emotional beats are what made it hard for the film to find a home on its initial release. It's a very difficult film to recommend because of its strange combination of different moods, but even though it didn't inspire me to add it to my regular film rotation, I actually had quite a splendid time with it. If anything I've written here has made you at all interested in checking out the unique creation that is Joe Versus the Volcano, then by all means do so. Even if you don't enjoy it as much as I did, it's enough of a cinematic curiosity that it's hard to ever find boring.

Movies Now and Then: selected by Jonathan for our "movies we like more than most people/critics" episode.