Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, Joe Versus The Volcano was a fairly notorious box office flop when Warner Brothers released it to theaters in 1990, despite the considerable star power of leads Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
When the film opens, we meet Joe Bank, a former fireman fed up with the danger and death involved with that job. As such, he takes mundane position in the office of the American Panascope Company's factory. They make rectal probes. It isn't long before Joe hates this job too, thanks to the nastiness of his boss, Frank Waturi (Dan Hedaya). From there? Tired of the constant headaches he's been getting lately, he decides to get a checkup. It's then that Joe's luck in life only gets worse when Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack) gives him the bad news: he's terminally ill. He has what Ellison diagnoses as a ‘brain cloud.' With nothing left to lose and little time left, Joe heads back to the factory and promptly quits, but before splitting completely he asks out fellow office worker Dede (Meg Ryan) on a date. She says yes and the night goes quite well until he scares her off by sharing with her his diagnosis.
The next day Joe gets a visit from Samuel Harvey Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), an eccentric but very wealthy man who comes to Joe with an offer. Knowing that Joe is not long for this world, Samuel proposes that he spend his last days on the island of Wapani-Woo where there exists a mineral that Graynamore would very much like to get ahold of. The locals won't allow it to happen unless he arranges for someone to throw themselves into a volcano to appease their god. Graynamore asks Joe to do this for him, and in return ensures that he'll have all the money he needs to live out his final days in style. Joe agrees and at Graynamore's expense, sets out to do this his way. He hires a limo (look for Ossie Davis as the driver), buys himself some new clothes, has a night out with the wealthy man's flaky daughter Angelica (Meg Ryan again) in Los Angeles and then eventually gets himself a nice boat. It's here that Joe meets Patricia (Ryan for a third time), Angelica's half-sister, who agrees to sail with Joe to the island in exchange for the boat once he's done with it. As they make their way to the island they start to fall for each other, but of course, Joe's days are numbered…
It's a weird idea for a rom-com, right?
Joe Versus The Volcano is, at its core, a romantic comedy. For some of us, that's the most dreaded of movie genres but this picture proves that you can do creative, bizarre and genuinely funny things and turn out a good one if you've got the right people in place. John Patrick Shanley's script is creative and loveably wonky. The film doesn't play very much of anything straight, casting Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane of all people as the tribal chiefs on the island and throwing about as much bad luck as you can imagine at sad sack Joe. Reality isn't a concern here, and it's the more fantastic elements that make the movie as memorable and fun as it is. The production values are nice here too. The sets in the city perfectly capture the doldrums of every day working life, the color schemes represent this well too, which stands in stark contrast to life on the island itself, where things are lush and colorful and, ironically enough, living under the constant threat of death by lava flow.
Performances are great across the board. While Hanks and Ryan made some pretty corny stuff after this one (Sleepless In Seattle I'm looking at you…) they do have an undeniable chemistry. He plays the everyman, working stiff type really well and has fantastic comedic timing and an appropriately expressive face. As to her qualities? Mostly she's just really cute, but even beyond that in this picture she gets the chance to play three different characters and she does this well, ensuring that they're similar enough to make sense but distinct enough that we have no trouble telling them apart. Supporting work from Dan Hedaya, Abe Vigoda, Nathan Lane and a scene stealing Lloyd Bridges also add to the fun.The Blu-ray:
Warner Archive presents Joe Versus The Volcano on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.40.1 widescreen. This is, by and large, a very nice picture. The movie is a very colorful one, so expect lots of bright primaries here, while detail is well advanced over the previous DVD edition of the picture. Skin tones look nice and lifelike while black levels are strong throughout. There are no issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement while noise reduction is never an issue. All in all, this looks quite film-like with good depth and texture. A very nice presentation!Sound:
Audio chores are handled well by the disc's DTS-HD 5.1 mix, presented in the picture's native English language. There's nice channel separation here, particularly when it comes to the film's use of music and sound effects. Dialogue stays clean, clear and easily discernible, levels are properly balanced and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note. Optional subtitles are provided for the film in English only.Extras:
Extras on the disc are carried over from the previous DVD release, there's sadly nothing new here. What we do get is a quick four minutes EPK style featurette that has some quick interview clips with Hanks and Ryan as well as director Shanley, a music video for Sixteen Tons, a trailer, menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
Joe Versus The Volcano is one of those rare romantic comedies that should appeal to even those who despise romantic comedies. It's easy to see why this didn't set the box office on fire when first released, as it's as patently bizarre as it is genuinely funny, but the film has rightly found a cult audience since then. Those that find themselves in that group should consider Warner Archive's Blu-ray release recommended. It doesn't add any new extras features but it does offer a nice upgrade in terms of presentation.