There aren’t many screen duos that work as partners better than Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle aren’t just two excellent romantic comedies from brilliant female filmmakers, but they serve as the perfect personification of what the genre can look like. Sticking to a certain formula can work if the actors have a chemistry that delivers authenticity and evokes emotion, and both films end on impactful moments where Hanks and Ryan commit to the emotional throughline, even if one is about recovering from loss and the other is about an emailing scam. Romantic comedies are sadly often denied theatrical releases now, and it’s easy to wax poetically about what the genre looked like at its best when frequent co-stars were that good together; Hanks still makes occasional comedies, but they rarely feature intimate romantic relationships quite as touching. Those looking to recapture that same magic need to watch the very first collaborations between the two, because Joe Versus The Volcano is one of the most bonkers rom-coms ever made, yet somehow one of the most effective. Who would have guessed that a film centered around descending into hell would provide so much laughter, heart, and optimism?
Joe Versus The Volcano centers on the joyless clerical worker Joe Banks (Hanks), whose grueling world days are generally followed by a series of illnesses and extensive medical visits to cure him of his depression, isolation, and seemingly chronic series of illnesses. In the first sign of the film’s comedically dark edge, Banks’ doctor informs him that while there is nothing clinically wrong with him, he is suffering from an incurable disease called a “brain cloud,” which leaves him with only a few months to live. The notion of a “brain cloud” itself is a ridiculous one that feels lifted from a Saturday Night Live sketch, which makes it more amusing when it’s determined by Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack), Banks’ medical advisor, says that his symptoms are all due to a previous injury in his former career as a fireman. With no hope of survival, Ellison leaves Banks with a general note on using the last five or six months of his life in a personally satisfying way, yet fails to go into any details or provide any practical knowledge. It takes a half-witted scheme and a trio of Meg Ryans to turn Joe Versus The Volcano from a depressing dark comedy to something much more heartwarming.
The Power Of Meg Ryan
Ryan’s skills are often underrated, as Hanks has reached a level of success and acclaim that is nearly unparalleled among any of today’s contemporary movie stars. However, Ryan’s performance is what transforms Joe Versus The Volcano from absurdity to sincerity. In a bold acting move, Ryan plays three separate characters throughout the film; this isn’t an unheard of technique, but she’s not playing different exaggerated caricatures like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. It’s three distinct women that have an impact on Joe’s life and guide him on his strange journey descending into a somewhat understandable state of madness, considering the surprising nature and lack of detail over his condition. It’s almost as if the three roles encapsulate a broad range of reactions one might have to hearing such disturbing news.
The first of Ryan’s roles is as DeeDee, a former coworker of Banks’ that he realizes he’s harbored a secret crush for in the wake of his diagnosis. With any worries about pride long behind him, Banks decides to ask her out, and their opening date is just as straightforward and charming as they would be later on in Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. Unfortunately, their chemistry is short-lived, reflecting the inability of some people to cope with struggling partners when DeeDee decides the relationship’s expected brevity makes it a doomed prospect. A similar, if not as extensive role comes in Ryan’s second performance as Angelica, a flighty socialite relatively unconcerned about Banks’ mental health issues who helps him reach her father’s boat. It’s a brief window into the life of the unconcerned, wealthy class that Ryan distinguishes from DeeDee; however, Angelica plays the important role of introducing Banks to her sister Patricia Graysmith, the third woman to affect Joe’s life who finally pushes him in the right direction.
Tom Hanks And Meg Ryan Are Sincere And Hilarious
Writer-director John Patrick Shanley has got to have one of the most unique track records of any major Hollywood filmmaker. After winning an Oscar for writing Moonstruck, he would go on to write and direct the riveting period piece Doubt, as well as the recent romantic comedy Wild Mountain Thyme, a film so bizarre it requires extensive analysis. Joe Versus The Volcano is much weirder and more broadly comedic, but it latches on to many of the same truths about human nature that are present in all of Stanley’s work. As baffling as it is, Joe’s decision to literally dive headfirst into a volcano in order to retrieve a precious mineral for Patricia’s father, Samuel Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), makes sense in his warped state of wrestling with a disease no one can relate to; he’s offered with the resources he needs to luxuriate in his final days if he can complete the mission, and at this point, Banks has nothing to lose. However, Ryan provides him with one last thing to invest in as Patricia and Banks begin to fall for each other during the trip where he’ll literally launch himself into hell.
Joe Versus The Volcano goes from bizarre to emotionally truthful at an incredible speed; after a sequence in the volcano with production design and visuals worthy of Joe Dante or John Carpenter, Ryan and Hanks exchange dialogue about pursuing their love until the bitter end that’s nearly tear-inducing. The subsequent revelation that Joe was misdiagnosed doesn’t feel like a cop-out ending, but rather a reward for their continued optimism. It’s a beautiful, absurd, and wildly charming first collaboration that would provide 1990s cinema with some of its sweetest and most sensitive moments.