Friday, July 18, 2014

Favorite Films: "Joe Versus the Volcano"

There are some films, just like people, that find ways into your heart and stubbornly insist on lodging themselves there despite all reason.  Some may insist on telling you that your heart is wrong, but it is they, of course, who are mistaken.  It may well be true that this odd thing you like is generally not considered likable, that you adore something not generally considered adorable.  So be it.

Such is the way for me and Joe Versus the Volcano, a movie I've heard people call loud, obvious, crass, facile, silly and too clever for its own good.  I've heard it described as grim and depressed.

I also know people who are called those things, and some of them are truly fine, wonderful people once you see past the surface.  I am proud to know them, even if others are not, and when I hear criticisms of them, I feel most sorry for the people passing judgment.  Their view of the world is limited, informed not by their hearts but by their heads.

Joe Versus the Volcano, to be fair, is puerile.  It is silly.  It is often loud, sometimes crass and frequently too clever for its own good.  There is fairly little doubt in my mind that it is obvious, too, but only in the ways that fairy tales and fables are obvious.  It is neither grim and is the opposite of depressed, though it starts out that way.

It begins with a man who is sad.  He faces the anxieties of modern life, problems like a soul-sucking job (he works at "the home of the rectal probe," which seems like a satirical extreme except that rectal probes exist, which means someone actually does make them), a hateful boss, and co-workers who look like zombies.  But how do you show problems like these in ways that really get to the heart of what people feel when they have dead-end lives?  It's a problem for many films, which try to portray life in ways that are at least marginally realistic.

Director/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar for the lyrical magic in his Moonstruck, knows the problem with realism is that it's never at all realistic.  So, from start to finish, Joe Versus the Volcano frames its story as a modern-day fable.  It even begins with the words, "Once upon a time ..."

That should be a clue that Joe Versus the Volcano is going to be anything but realistic, but perhaps because it's not an animated musical, most people seem not to take it that way.  When Meg Ryan shows up as three different characters, each with ridiculously abstracted personalities, people seem incapable of grasping that this is not realism but fantasy.  They have a hard time with a doctor explaining that Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is going to die of a "brain cloud."  They want to know what a "brain cloud" is and why they've never heard of it.  They've never heard of it because a "brain cloud" is a disease that exists in the kind of world where chocolate manufacturers wear purple velvet coats, where slippers are made of glass, where puppets turn into boys and houses fly to Oz in tornadoes.

By the time Joe Versus the Volcano was released in 1990, things like that didn't happen in the movies anymore.  That's a shame.

In Joe Versus the Volcano, Joe is directed -- for reasons far too elaborate to explain here -- to fling himself into a volcano on a remote South Pacific island where the natives include Abe Vigoda and love to drink orange soda.

He tries to get to the island on a boat whose crew is led by one of Meg Ryan's three characters, Patricia, a wounded woman who has what I consider one of the all-time great screen monologues in which she explains that the pain in her soul is something Joe is going to see.

Joe and Patricia survive a shipwreck, incongruously dance to classic rock-and-roll while floating on top of expensive luggage, and almost die.

Joe's near-death scene is a visually magnificent one, and a beautifully honest one in the ways of honesty in fables: As he watches the moon rise over the South Pacific, he is humbled in the presence of the universe, and utters a short prayer to "God, whose name I do not know."  He understands that his life is more than he ever imagined it to be, and in that moment he isn't just talking about the grand adventure he has come to experience, but even that awful life under fluorescent lights at the rectal-probe place.

Eventually, Joe and Patricia stand atop the volcano and face their moment of truth.  Again using the tools of fable-telling with brilliant precision, Shanley creates a moment of rare insight as Patricia explains the options to a still-scared Joe.  "Nobody knows anything, Joe," she says.  "We'll take this leap and we'll see.  We'll jump, and we'll see.  That's life, right?"

Yes, that's life.  And if those words were the only ones anyone ever remembered from the impressive career of John Patrick Shanley, they would be enough.  They are simple, straightforward, even mildly lyrical.  They are the reason Joe Versus the Volcano exists -- to hearten those who have been disheartened, to embolden those who have become timid.

It is the best reason a film can be made: To impart a particular vision of the world that might help make the lives of others a little bit better.  They are words I come back to over and over in my own life.

Perhaps they are spoken by an unlikeable character in a film that is loud, brash and unsophisticated.  I don't care.  They are honest words in a movie overflowing with sincere, sympathetic observations about the plight of people who think they have to stay stuck in their jobs, that their lives have become small, that they must have a "brain cloud" that will get them in the end one day.

We all feel like that from time to time.  Seek out this odd, beautiful, imperfectly perfect little film sometime, ideally on a cold and rainy day when you can't imagine the sun returning.  If you give it just half a chance, Joe Versus the Volcano will make you feel better about life.  No matter who you are, Joe Versus the Volcano believes in you.

The same can't be said for many films.  Joe Versus the Volcano is an adorably optimistic, admittedly uneven piece of work -- and it's that unevenness that makes it so rare.  It is not the best film ever made, it is just one of the most loving, kind and secretly sweet films ever made.  Its failures are evident, but its successes outshine them.

It's the movie I return to time and time again when I need to be reminded of my own capacity for strength, daring, risk-taking and adventure, whether big or small.  It's the movie that helps me feel better about myself.  I hope someday, when you're on your own homemade raft looking for any sign of life on an endless sea of your own making, it will do the same for you.

Other people may tell you it's not worth watching, that it's a big epic mess of a movie.  Don't listen to those people.  They have brain clouds.

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