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Film review: Joe Versus the Volcano

Published: Thursday, March 15 1990 12:00 a.m. MST

The preposterous plot of "Joe Versus the Volcano," which echoes the Carole Lombard classic "Nothing Sacred," is only accentuated by the phony '40s-movie look of the set design. But it's all obviously to great purpose.

On the other hand, despite its fantastic aspects, "Joe" is also a very perceptive view of the human condition, and by exaggerating the story elements here writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his "Moonstruck" screenplay, manages a rare balancing act. This movie is very funny, utterly ridiculous and rich in human experience all at once.

From the very first shots it is apparent that first-time director Shanley is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Under the opening credits, to the strains of Eric Burdon singing "Sixteen Tons," we see Tom Hanks, long-haired, pasty-faced and obviously miserable, slowly exiting his car and heading for work. At one point the camera pulls up to reveal ahead of him a long, winding road of shuffling bodies trudging to the daily grind, all looking like zombie extras in "Dawn of the Dead."

The workplace is a Long Island medical supply company, dubbed "Home of the Rectal Probe," where Hanks labors under glaring fluorescent lights in a dingy office and an swers to an overbearing boss (Dan Hedaya). A hypochondriac, Hanks goes to a new doctor (Robert Stack) to see why he feels so terrible all the time and is told he has a "brain cloud," which will kill him within a few months. So, Hanks decides to live his final days to the hilt and quits his job, asking out a co-worker he's been too shy to approach. (She's performed by Meg Ryan in the first of three brilliantly played, very different roles.)

The next day he is visited by wealthy, wild-eyed Lloyd Bridges, who offers a bizarre proposition: Since Hanks is dying anyway, how about jumping into a South Seas volcano to appease some natives who won't sell their mineral rights? In return, Bridges gives Hanks a blank check so he can live it up.

Hanks naturally agrees.

What follows is an odyssey Homer could have been proud of, which includes everything from a shopping spree in Manhattan to a cruise on a yacht to a typhoon to an erupting volcano, along with a bevy of eccentric supporting characters richer than any since Hollywood's heyday in the '30s and '40s.

There are moments of riotous hilarity here, as when Hanks buys his luggage and the subsequent running gag about his four steamer trunks; there are many wonderful sight gags, such as Hanks trying to hang his hat on a coat rack; and Shanley uses music to great advantage as well, as when the natives, decorated in crushed orange soda cans, rush to greet Hanks singing "Hava Nagela," a gag that was set up much earlier.

And there are nice tender moments, as well, as Hanks and Meg Ryan's third character fall in love. But as he tells her when he's about to leap into the volcano _ "I love you too . . . but the timing stinks."

The timing's great in this one _ kudos to all: Tom Hanks in a wonderfully appealing turn tailor-made to his leading man/deadpan comic talents; Ryan, who, as mentioned, offers a real triple tour de force; and to the many veterans in terrific supporting roles, with special marks to Ossie Davis as a wise chauffeur, Barry McGovern as the luggage salesman, Abe Vigoda as the tribal chief and the aforementioned Lloyd Bridges.

And to Shanley, forgiveness for the terrible "The January Man" from last year and the hope that he'll give us many more in the future like "Joe Versus the Volcano."

It is rated PG for a few profanities and some nature-induced violence.