Worth Another Look: Joe Versus the Volcano

It's always perilous to revisit movies you loved as a kid. Last weekend, we took a chance with  Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). My husband can't stand this movie, and not only because it is so chock full of Meg Ryan, who plays three roles. He says that it's a playwright's movie, which really does explain a lot. He complains that the characters are sloppy and ill-defined, and that many of the lines are delivered on a silver tray labelled "Significant and Memorable!" ("What's with the shoe?" someone asks Joe, who has stumbled and torn the sole on a sharp edge. "I'm losing my soul," he moans.  Womp womp!) And for a movie with "volcano" in the title, you sure had to wade through a lot of movie before any volcano action turns up.

The movie does attempt to be a sort of fable or fairy tale, which accounts for how cartoonish it is; but it's a conceit that is not carried through consistently, and some scenes lurch unpleasantly back and forth between magical realism and unpersuasive bathos.

If you're looking for subtlety, this is not the movie for you. Joe holds up three books he has been reading: Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet, and the Odyssey, essentially waving a sign to tell the viewer, "This will be about a tropical island, a couple in love, and a very long trip!" Never mind that Robinson Crusoe is, in real life, dull as ditchwater, and Romeo and Juliet is about a couple of teenagers who died for no reason because they didn't really understand love, and the Odyssey is, come on, The Odyssey. If you're trying to impress us with your story-telling, you don't want to stand next to Homer.

Still, I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. I think it's perfect viewing for people in maybe grades 6-10 -- right when you're looking for a spactable that's a little bit wild and goofy, but with something clear, strong, and sweet to say.

(Tons of plot spoilers follow, since this movie is 25 years old.) It's true that the pace of the plot tries your patience, but you could make a case that this was intentional: it's (okay, kind of like the Odyssey) a "crooked path" story; and the crooked path image keeps turning up: it's the shape of the logo of the medical supply company that employs and oppresses Joe, of the lightning that strikes the yacht he's on, and of the torch-lit path of islanders processing up to the volcano.  "A long time on a crooked road," as Joe says to DeDe early on.

So if they take a long time to get to the volcano, that could be because the most important scene of the movie is not actually the volcano scene. Joe is weirdly nonchalant as he prepares to leap to his death, and this makes sense, because the high point of his journey has already come, when he was on the trunk raft and saw the  moon rising so hugely. To me, all the flaws of the movie are justified by this scene, which is painted in very broad strokes but is tremendously moving nonetheless. Adrift, losing hope of rescue, nearly out of water, he is woken by the breaking of moonlight over the ocean. Trembling and dumbfounded, he watches it burst over the horizon, and whispers:

“Dear god, whose name I do not know, Thank you for my life. I forgot... how BIG... thank you. Thank you for my life.”

The scene works because it shows so nicely how change of heart really comes about in our lives: not always in the clearly-defined moments of choice, but in the middle of the night, when we see with our hearts what the world is really like. He had already agreed to sacrifice his life for a bunch of strangers -- an objectively noble thing, but done for the worst reasons. Because he has nothing left to lose, and wants to go out with a bang. It sounds like a big deal, but he hasn't really changed much on the inside -- he's just become a different kind of desperate. But once he is grateful for his life, then he becomes willing to sacrifice in a meaningful way, doling out capfuls of water to the unconscious Patricia while saving none for himself. This is how it happens to us so often: we make the big promise, and only later do we grow into it, become worthy of what we have vowed to do.

And then comes the volcano, finally. He says, earlier in the movie, that he is interested in courage; and we know that when he was a firefighter, he was capable of risking his life to save other people. But this kind of self-sacrifice is not sufficient in itself. He needs one more lesson before his heroic education is complete. His plan is just to go ahead and jump, because he has no other choice. But once he agrees to marry Patricia right at the mouth of the volcano, she tells him, "We'll take this leap, and we'll see. We'll jump, and we'll see. That's life, right?"

Again, broad brush strokes! No subtlety here. But darn it, it's a good line. It's a good idea. If you really don't have any choice but to jump, you might as well hope for a miracle. Just about every married couple I know has faced a ridiculous, inescapable volcano like that, and an awful lot of us have come shooting right back out again, against all odds.

I tend to think that all movies with a man and a woman in them are about marriage, but I think this one really is. And if it's a little garish and talky and overt -- hey, some of us are into that kind of thing.

So overall? It held up, and I recommend it.The movie has a bit of bad language (nothing really horrifying) and an intense make-out scene where it looks like they're going to have sex, but then they don't. I would show it to kids in sixth grade or above without qualms.