Hidden Gems: Joe Versus the Volcano

By Kyle Lee

May 11, 2016

Pictured: Joe. Not pictured: The Volcano

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A review of Joe Versus the Volcano is very difficult to write. It is at once epic and intimate, ambitious and silly, humorous and melancholy, ridiculous and thought provoking. It is a movie that has a passionate fanbase, but a movie that has divided critics and audiences since it was released in 1990. On IMDb it has a user rating of only 5.7/10, on RottenTomatoes a "rotten" critics score of just 58% (and an audience score of 54%), and a thumbs down from Gene Siskel. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote, "Not since Howard the Duck has there been a big-budget comedy with feet as flat as those of Joe Versus the Volcano. Many gifted people contributed to it, but there's no disbelieving the grim evidence on the screen."

Yet, it had some staunch defenders like Roger Ebert who called it "new and fresh and not shy of taking chances" upon its original release. Obviously, since I’m writing this review, I’m on Ebert's side. This movie is full of life and invention, warmth, whimsy and insanity, and even Tom Hanks has referred to it as something of a Hidden Gem in his filmography.


Joe Versus the Volcano was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who was coming off his Oscar win for writing Moonstruck and making his directorial debut. He enlisted two key collaborators in cinematographer Stephen Goldbatt and production designer Bo Welch. Goldblatt had started as a photographer, taking many famous photos of The Beatles during the White Album years. He’d also just come off shooting the first two Lethal Weapon movies and would go on to be the DP of choice for Mike Nichols at the end of his career. Bo Welch had made a name for himself working for Tim Burton, so this was just coming after his extraordinary work in Beetlejuice. These three worked together to create a movie of distinct visual invention and thematic relevancy, as there are production elements tying things together throughout the movie in a way that you rarely see.

We begin with the classic “Once upon a time,” but continue with “there was a man named Joe who had a boring job,” and we watch Joe Banks (Hanks) sulk into work at the American Panascope Corporation (home of the Rectal Probe!), where he works in the advertising library. He walks pathetically into the building alongside innumerable fellow zombies going to work at this place that looks like it would steal your life away. It’s doing exactly that as we hear Eric Burden’s version of “16 Tons” on the soundtrack (“Sold my soul to the company store”). Joe pines after Dede (Meg Ryan), who works in the office as well. We find out that Joe is a hypochondriac who gets berated by his boss (Dan Hedaya) for needing to take off again for yet another doctor’s appointment. But when Joe sees the doctor (Robert Stack), he’s told he has a very rare condition known as a brain cloud, which was only discovered by Joe’s insistence on doing a barrage of tests. Joe’s given only about six months to live, and rather than view this as a death sentence, he’s awakened from the slumber in which he’d been living his life for so long.

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