Joe Versus the Volcano is the latest dismaying evidence that playwright-turned-screenwriter John Patrick Shanley lucked out with Moonstruck. In that celebrated 1987 romance, he had a cast of inspired operatic clowns and a director — Norman Jewison — who turned his glorified-sitcom script into gold.
But Shanley has been on his own ever since, and the results (January Man, Five Corners) have not been pretty. Joe Versus the Volcano is the first movie he has directed, and it’s a fiasco. Tom Hanks plays Joe, a sad-sack nebbish who learns he has only six months to live. With nothing to lose, he agrees to be part of a businessman’s bizarre scheme that involves jumping into the center of a live volcano on a tropical island inhabited by Jewish-Hawaiian natives.
Since this is the purest silliness (and since the movie was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment), we assume Shanley is going to cut loose — that he’s going to lead his hero through a slapstick fantasy world. The joke is on us. Joe’s big adventure turns out to have all the show-stopping whammy of a Love Boat rerun.
First, he indulges himself in go-for-broke experiences like buying expensive luggage! Then, he sails out to the island with the businessman’s pretty daughter (Meg Ryan), and during a typhoon the two of them get tossed around the boat! Then Joe and the girl end up lost at sea, and he turns on the radio and…dances to rock & roll music! (I mean, the guy really gets down.)
There’s something weirdly innocent about Shanley’s ineptitude: He seems to be inventing the oldest cliches for the very first time. The movie doesn’t really hit bottom, though, until he has Ryan deliver an ickily earnest monologue about how her character is ”soul-sick.” I think she means, ”Pass the Pepto-Bismol.” F