Joe Versus the Volcano’s final punchline comes during the end credits when it turns out Industrial Light and Magic did the special effects. Volcano’s got terrible special effects, especially for an Amblin production, but for ILM to have done them? Yikes.
Now, the film’s an absurdist riff on sixties comedies, so the obvious artifice could work if director Shanley weren’t quite bad at both his jobs on the film (writing and directing) or if cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt were in on the gag. Goldblatt spends the entire film competently lighting it—even when Shanley’s misunderstanding of headroom becomes a near-universal eyesore—but he never does anything more. Goldblatt ably executes all Shanley’s bad ideas. It’s an incredibly qualified situation.
Volcano’s got several unsuccessful bits running throughout the entire film, starting with a recurring lightning visual. It’s the logo for lead Tom Hanks’s terrible job, it’s the path the workers take up to the door (see, thirties), and it comes back at least three more times. Shanley does a lousy job emphasizing it, but it’s also a weak sauce logo. While Bo Welch’s production design isn’t bad—Volcano’s a cross between Coen Brothers and Tim Burton—that lightning strike is awful.
The film starts with Hanks as an office drone at a medical supply company. Dan Hedaya’s his boss. Volcano’s one of those movies with a bad Dan Hedaya performance, entirely because Shanley’s really bad. And, at this point in the film, desperate to be John Patrick Shanley Coen.
The medical supply company makes anal probes and petroleum jelly. The movie makes fun of the idea of someone having something wrong with their butthole, so not zero chance Joe Versus the Volcano meant someone didn’t get the medical intervention they needed.
Fingers crossed some proctologist got revenge.
Meg Ryan, with a jaw-droppingly bad Noo Yawk accent, plays Hanks’s coworker, who he’s always crushed on but never asked out because he’s an office drone. He’s also got one hell of a mullet. Hanks gets a haircut later, and it’s like he’s playing two different people; Shanley’s not good at character establishing or development (Hanks actually just says he doesn’t have a personality, so don’t hope for one). Ryan does play different people, three of them. She’s the office mouse, a high-strung L.A. girl with substance abuse issues and another bad accent, then she’s the L.A. girl’s half-sister, a free spirit who wants to travel the seas.
Ryan’s usually likable, even when she’s bad. The third role, the free spirit, ought to be the best, but it ends up being the worst. At least the first two have impressive hair and makeup; the third one looks like she’s wearing a bad wig, and then she’s unconscious most of the time, waking up to fall for Hanks at just the wrong moment.
Because Hanks is dying. His new doctor, Robert Stack, gives him the bad news. So Hanks heads back to work, causes a scene, peaces out. The next day, weird industrialist Lloyd Bridges shows up with an offer—throw himself in a volcano on a remote island so Bridges can get mineral rights and Hanks can live like a movie millionaire until then.
The most successful part of the film is when chauffeur Ossie Davis shows Hanks how to live it up on Bridges’s AMEX card in Manhattan. And only because it’s Davis. Davis gives the film’s only actual good performance because not even Shanley can write so bad Davis can’t make it work.
After a day in Manhattan, Hanks heads to L.A. to meet Ryan #2; then, it’s off for an ocean voyage with Ryan #3. Amanda Plummer shows up for a scene and a half on the boat. She’s probably the second-best performance.
On the boat, Hanks and Ryan will be cute and weird as Hanks realizes the real way to live life is as a millionaire, and having to work for a living on Staten Island sucked.
The volcano stuff waits until the third act. Abe Vigoda shows up as a Polynesian-Jewish-Celtic chieftain. It’s worse than it sounds because Vigoda’s entirely hacky without being charming, and the island is a bunch of big, poorly shot sets.
Hanks is likable about thirty-five percent of the time, good five percent of the time, bad ten percent, lost the rest. Ryan’s often quite bad; whatever Shanley thought he was doing with “many women, one face” doesn’t work. Especially since Ryan never gets a part, just a caricature.
Besides Davis (and Plummer), Stack’s probably the most successful. Then Bridges. Shanley ought to be ashamed of himself for what he made Hedaya essay.
Joe Versus the Volcano undoubtedly has some bewildering behind-the-scenes stories, but who cares. Despite being desperately eccentric, it’s never an interesting failure.