The Best Flop Movie: "Joe vs. The Volcano"

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One of the pleasures of this holiday movie season is the film, "Doubt." Not because it's so wonderfully done - which it is, on every level - but because it's allowed the great, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley the opportunity to once again direct a movie.

Therein lies the tale.

John Patrick Shanley is an accomplished writer best known to the public for his Oscar-winning screenplay of the movie "Moonstruck," as well as his Tony-awarding winning play, "Doubt." In between them, he made his movie directing debut with "Joe vs. the Volcano," an offbeat comedy he also wrote that has the distinct honor of being the only movie to star Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and flop.

Given that the other two are "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," that's quite an accomplishment. Especially consider the executive producer was Steven Spielberg. And yet - flop it did. Huge.

It shouldn't have. And it killed Shanley's directing career. And it shouldn't have done that, either.

I've discovered that life is divided into two groups - those who utterly hate "Joe vs. the Volcano" and those who absolutely, unequivocally love it. And it's about 90-10 against. I'm with the 10%.

BUT...this is one of the few, totally subjective, personal opinion matters when I feel comfortable saying that I'm right - and right for an objective, demonstrable reason. And this reason is that most people who so-dislike the movie not only missed the point - but it's a point that John Patrick Shanley wrote in black-and-white. I don't mean metaphorically wrote. I mean he literally wrote it in black-and-white. Plastered it across the screen. And people miss it.

A moment first to explain "Joe vs. the Volcano." It concerns a man who's feeling miserable with his life, lost, adrift, when three things happen: he visits a new doctor, he meets a wealthy industrialist, and three women cross his path. As a result, Joe makes an outlandish decision to alter his life and heads off on his adventure to accomplish it.

As I've meandered through my days and tried to sneak the movie into the conversation of polite society, the main complaint against "Joe vs. the Volcano" is that it's stupid and silly and unbelievable and ridiculous and over-the-top. And it's perceived that way because the movie is very crisp, very stark and looks very realistic. And if viewed realistically, the movie IS stupid and silly and utterly ridiculous. BUT --

In the first image of the movie (and this is not giving anything away, because it is the very first thing you see), Shanley tells the audience in black-and-white that this is not supposed to be viewed realistically. The very first image of the movie is a graphic with the words, "Once upon a time, there was a man named Joe..."

Okay, here's a pop quiz: what stories begin "Once upon a time..."? They are - well, okay, you know the answer - fairy tales!! In fact, to nail this point home further, Shanley creates yet another, similar image that reiterates This Is A Fairy Tale. I won't mention that one because it does give away a major plot point. But it's as blatant as the first, all the more so because it's a major plot point, and even harder to miss. And just as hard to misinterpret.

Stories that begin "Once upon a time" and have that other, second image are fairy tales. Pure and simple. And Shanley is telling everyone that that's how you should look at this story. As a magical fairy tale. And if you DO look at it that way - like you're watching a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, or the Brothers Grimm, or Aesop, or whatever - then the goofiness of the movie, the off-beat icons, the intentionally repeated images, the stylized patter, the fantastic occurrences (like 'brain clouds'), life-changing bolts of lightning, and one actress playing all the different women who show up throughout Joe's life, all of these fairy tale circumstances fit together and make perfect sense. This isn't the real world, it's a fairy tale world.

I've watched the movie at least eight times, and almost each time I see more images and points I missed before.

One example - the movie has a recurring image of a crooked line, but it's always blended into other images and easy to overlook until repeated viewings. It's the logo for the company where Joe works. And it's the same patterned path that the lemming-like employees take as they drudgingly march into the factory. And it's also the pattern that we see at a distance that the island natives take when they are walking up the volcano. And then Joe even makes a comment about how his whole life has been walking a crooked path. So, it all comes full circle and fits impeccably together. The movie is full of richness like that. All part of the fairy tale world that is consistent with itself.

Recently, I cautiously mentioned "Joe vs. the Volcano" to my friend Myles Berkowitz (mentioned in these pages previously for his deeply thoughtful, encyclopedic and outspoken reactions to...well, just about anything), and it was with great relief to discover how completely thrilled he was to find another soul who loves the movie as much as he does - and he's seen it 20 times, making me look like a piker. That he agreed with everything I'm saying here is not offered as proof, just that the mutual and independent thought by a highly-perceptive fellow was comforting.

To be clear, it's of course possible to dislike this movie, any movie because you think it's not well made. No question. Or because you don't like fairy tales. To each their taste. What I'm saying, however, that my experience is that that's NOT why people ever say they don't like "Joe vs. the Volcano." (And boy, have I talked to a lot...) They don't comment on the characters, dialogue, plot structure or craftsmanship. No, all they say is, "It's so stupid, it's so unbelievable." If people accept the movie for what it is and still don't like it -- fair enough. I have no quibble with that. My point is that I've never found that that's why most people don't like it.

It is my experience that most people don't like "Joe vs. the Volcano" because they totally miss the point. They miss that John Patrick Shanley has told them, blatantly, clearly - this is a fairy tale.

That returns us to my pleasure at seeing the movie "Doubt," which Shanley directed, based on his play.

Regardless of what one thinks of the story of "Joe vs. the Volcano," it's still a beautifully directed movie. (The breathtaking scene when the full moon rises above the ocean may possibly be my favorite scene in any movie, ever.) But the way Hollywood works, if a movie flops, executives in charge believe the movie has to have been poorly directed. That's an attitude so small-minded and wrong. Same thing conversely with the screenplay of a flop, or an acting performance. All can be wonderful, but a movie fails for many reasons, and often they are unrelated to quality, talent and craftsmanship. And that's why I said I was so pleased that John Patrick Shanley got another chance to direct with "Doubt" - and is now demonstrating what I knew years ago, that he's not just a tremendous writers, he's a wonderful director, as well.

For those who get that "Joe vs. the Volcano" is a fairy tale but simply don't like it - so be it. For those who wish to continue dismissing the movie for all the wrong reasons, it's your right to be completely wrong and not realize it. But for those with an open mind, go back and watch "Joe vs. the Volcano" again. And for those who've never seen it before - you're in for a treat. But the only thing to keep in mind when you do watch it is -

You are watching a fairy tale. About being adrift in your often-strange life and following a crooked path to get to where you are finally supposed to be.

And that's why "Joe vs. the Volcano" is the best flop movie. Without a Doubt.