Nothing too weird here. Tom Hanks is just a working stiff named Joe whose doctor (Robert Stack) tells him he has a short time to live. Hearing the news, Joe accepts an offer from a businessman (Lloyd Bridges). In exchange for a few days of fun on Bridges’s credit cards, Joe will go to a South Seas island – the source of a mineral Bridges needs for his business – and jump in a volcano. The natives require a human sacrifice; their chief (Abe Vigoda) can’t find any volunteers. So Bridges brings in Hanks. It’s good public relations and, hell, what’s Joe got to lose?
Joe Versus the Volcano is a fiasco made by an extremely talented man. Playwright John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, can inject gritty reality into scenes of the purest gossamer. The drudgery of Joe’s office, with Dan Hedaya hilarious as a boss who keeps repeating the same line on the phone (“I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?”), is shrewdly evoked. Hanks, as ever, turns a comic line with effortless grace. And Meg Ryan, playing three vastly different women in his life, has rarely been more appealing.
The catch is that Shanley, making his debut as a director, simply can’t do the job. There’s no sense of pacing or fore-thought; scenes seem thrown together. Individually the actors are fine, but Shanley can’t blend their divergent styles. Things reach the unendurable level when Joe hits the tropics, and we’re treated to antics of orange-drink-guzzling half-Jewish natives, led by Vigoda, that could shame Gilligan’s Island. Somewhere along the line, Shanley let his gentle fable about the fear of love, responsibility and commitment degenerate into crude farce. And he has only himself to blame.