Ebertfest 2012: ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ and thoughts about movies and theater

As a long-time theater critic and sometime movie critic, I had forgotten that “Joe Versus the Volcano” had been written and directed by Brooklyn-born John Patrick Shanley. I can almost remember the small theater in Los Angeles where I saw a production of his 1983 two-character play “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.” I recall a performance of “Italian American Reconciliation” somewhere in the distant past, but more recently Shanley won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play for his “Doubt: A Parable.”  The West Coast premiere of that production in 2005 starred Linda Hunt as Sister Aloysius, a nun who suspected a young priest may be molesting a student in the parish.

Movie goers are more likely to know that Shanley won an Oscar for the screenplay of the romantic comedy 1987 “Moonstruck” which won Cher a Best Actress Oscar. That’s when her face still moved.

The 1990 “Joe Versus the Volcano” came after “Moonstruck” and struck out at the box office, yet has reportedly developed a cult following and festival attendees were invited to join the cult.  If one should never judge a book by its cover, then one should never judge a movie by its title.

Shanley in his directorial debut recognized the romantic chemistry between two future stars. “Joe Versus the Volcano” was the first of three movies that paired Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan together.  I had seen the 1993 “Sleepless in Seattle” as well as the 1998 “You’ve Got Mail” (I own the soundtrack).  The latter was based on a play by Hungarian-born Miklos Laszlo, “llatszertár,” which is also known as “Parfumerie” and as a movie became 1940 James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan “The Shop Around the Corner” and the 1949 Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical “In the Good Old Summertime” before “You’ve Got Mail.”

While the Stewart-Sullavan movie kept the location in Budapest, the Judy Garland movie took us to Chicago. “You’ve Got Mail” set us in NYC. A good play, plays anywhere.

But what about playwrights? Shanley is known as the “Bard of Bronx,”  but “Joe Versus the Volcano” is far removed from  the hard lives of the blue collar in the Bronx. Hanks plays Joe Banks, a man stuck in white-collar hell in Staten Island. His boss (Dan Hedaya) has the same senseless argumentative phone conversation and his demands on Joe are equally illogical. Under the cold glare of fluorescent lights, Joe’s only solace is his cheap lamp with a rotating shade that offers stereotypical scenes of an island paradise. Joe has dreams that aren’t goals but tranquilizers that make his life bearable.

When Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack) informs Joe he has a terminal case of brain cloud, he quits his job and asks his co-worker DeDe (Meg Ryan) out on a date.  But DeDe isn’t ready for a soon-to-be-dead boyfriend, leaving Joe alone. A wealthy industrialist, Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges0 learns of Joe’s plight and asks him to help him gain the goodwill of a small tribe in the Pacific so that he can mind a rare mineral. All Joe has to do is throw himself into a volcano to appease the angry volcano gods. Until then, Joe has time for some high living.

Flying to Los Angeles, he meets with one of Graynamore’s daughters, Angelica (Ryan), who introduces him to her half-sister Patricia (also Ryan). Patricia will captain the yacht that will deliver Joe to the island of Waponi Woo. Joe and Patricia find love, but face a typhoon and are miraculously saved by some high-class baggage.

You might be disappointed to learn that director/writer Shanley never made another rom-com movie. The only other movie he wrote and directed was the drama “Doubt.” Shanley told Alex Witchell in a New York Times magazine profile that, “Money is like heroin, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was destroyed by heroin. I’ve watched addiction all my life. Celebrity is like heroin. And constant praise is like heroin. And, you know, no one can resist constant praise. I had to get out.”

Now 61, Shanley has lost some of his eyesight so it’s unlikely that he will again venture into directing and writing a movie. “Joe Versus the Volcano” uses a few theatrical conventions. By having Ryan play each of Joe’s three love interests, the women become incarnations of a type. The recurring motif of a crooked path is a visual reminder of this meandering plot as well as the way one’s life rarely travels a straight and narrow trajectory.  The visual imagery such as the famous resplendent moon behind the baggage raft or the less famous brick factory façade could easily have been part of the set design for a stage production.

If the 1990 “Joe Versus the Volcano” was a commercial and critical failure, Shanley’s 2008 “Doubt” was a prestigious critical success that starred Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Streep, Hoffman and Shanley all received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.

That added history and hindsight, makes this overlooked gem glow with nostalgic regret of a promise unfulfilled. What was the silver screen’s loss was the gain for theater-goers. Shanley has in the past enjoyed directing his own works.

When you really think about it, “Joe versus the Volcano” would have made a good play, one of those goofy romantic fables that wins us over despite the moralizing to jump into the fire and live life before you learn you only have a few months to live.

In April, I was a VIP guest of the Ebertfest and this is my report. 

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