Finding Solace in Life’s Absurdity and Terror in Joe Versus the Volcano

Culture

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One of my favorite quarantine pastimes is changing my personality and look as often and as drastically as Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano. I highly recommend this. Your significant other or roommate will feel much less alone if you use the time in isolation to go from being one person to being three people as portrayed by a brilliant comedic performer. Dinners for two become boisterous group scenes when there’s acting and wigs involved. This is how we will stay strong through this crisis. Why, just last night I entered my bathroom a mild-mannered person sliding quickly into madness and emerged a self-proclaimed flibbertigibbet with red hair and a weird husky voice modeled after Angelica, the second of Ryan’s characters in the film. Is this what the public (my houseplants) wants? No. Is it what the public (my houseplants) needs? Absolutely. I am an altruistic flibbertigibbet and you’re welcome.

One of the greatest delights of the resolutely strange Joe Versus the Volcano is that it never makes any attempt to explain why Ryan keeps showing up in different wigs with different names. She’s Dee Dee, co-worker to Tom Hanks’ Joe Banks, and then she’s Angelica, and finally she’s Angelica’s half-sister, Patricia. (She also provides the voice of an unseen flight attendant. America’s sweetheart was booked and busy.)

Perhaps the easiest explanation is that this role tripling plays into the heightened aesthetic of John Patrick Shanley’s film. Though it’s purported takes place in the real world, the presence of the fantastic is never far off. The New York medical supply company where Joe works looks like something out of a Roald Dahl nightmare (or Evilene’s factory in The Wiz). Joe’s boss, Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya), drones into the phone repeating the same two phrases. A mysterious man (Lloyd Bridges) shows up at Joe’s apartment, punches a hole in the wall, and offers Joe money to jump into a volcano. And Joe, pushed to the limits of the fantastic, accepts because he believes that he has a brain cloud. Joe Versus the Volcano constructs a world in which everything makes sense because nothing makes sense. The absurd is a regularity here and so we accept it. We also accept it because for all of strangeness, Shanley is using heightened elements to illustrate a crushingly common experience.

Joe Versus the Volcano is a love story, an existential fable about the revival of the soul, and a heightened satire about escaping corporate drudgery. This third reading merits Joe Versus the Volcano‘s inclusion in this week’s Remote Rewind, which is focused on comedies about jobs during a time when our relationship to work is changing. In or out of context, the details of our present moment would be right at home in Shanley’s peculiar world. Office buildings across the nation sit empty as the workforce crawls the walls of their homes and shouts into computer screens. If ever there were a time for the insertion of the absurd (or for putting on a wig and playing a Meg Ryan character), it’s now.

Tom Hanks And Meg Ryan In 'Joe Versus The Volcano'

Warner Bros.Getty Images

Indeed, it’s actually satisfying to pass through the off-kilter lens through which Shanley frames Joe Banks’s story. In a film where the mundane, the terrifying, and the traumatic sit side-by-side—and are often one and the same—we can find a reflection of our own lived experience. The surreal horror of an empty grocery store shelf where soap once was. The haunted-house feeling of walking through an apartment building and hearing dozens of conference calls occurring behind closed doors. The new danger of hugs. Hugs. There are moments when it seems so strange it can’t possibly be real; there are other moments when it’s business as usual because it must be. Joe Banks would totally understand. And he might have some advice on what to do about it.

You see, Joe is sick. Well, actually, according to his doctor, he’s fine; he just thinks he’s sick. Well, actually, there is the small matter of Joe’s mysterious brain cloud that’s going to kill him. “I’m not sick except for this terminal disease?” Joe asks. That’s about right, the doctor replies. The doctor tells Joe he’s a hypochondriac and that work-related trauma from his years as a firefighter continues to effect his psychologically and now, physiologically. It’s a fascinating moment—we find out in the last scene of the movie that the doctor is lying about the brain cloud, of course, but even his secondary assessments of Joe are contradictory. The doctor says Joe is making up his other illnesses and in the same breath acknowledges that mental stresses can manifest in the body. It’s the sort of commonplace absurdity that can occur in real life. One need only peruse some corners of Twitter (or call a relative who puts too much faith in one particular cable channel) to find people who are more than willing to tell you what you’re feeling isn’t real, what you’re experiencing is being blown out of proportion, and what you think is abnormal is actually normal.

“There’s this idea that we can earn our way out of the unpleasant, and that simply isn’t true. “

Part of it is sinister and intentional but part of it, I think, is just a by-product (or perhaps the product) of an American experience of capitalism that says if things aren’t going well for you or you don’t feel great, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. There’s this idea that we can earn our way out of the unpleasant, and that simply isn’t true. Joe isn’t a high earner, but he has a job and the ability to get medical care. He may not be living the American Dream but he’s certainly in the REM cycle. And yet he keeps facing the uncontrollable, the unfixable, the terrifying and the mundane, until a diagnosis pushes him over the edge and into a new appreciation of life.

There is a moment of stunning beauty midway through the film that lingers long after a rewatch. Joe has met and fallen in love with the third Meg Ryan iteration, Patricia, and they’ve set sail for an island, only to be struck by lightning and stranded at sea. Patricia is unconscious and injured and Joe cares for her, shading her with an umbrella while he suffers the harsh effects of the sun and sea air. He pours their remaining supply of clean water into her mouth, denying himself any so as to extend it. He does this because he thinks he is dying anyway, but also because he loves her and there is more to be gained from selflessness than from self-preservation. Eventually, his body gives out and he comes face-to-face with the unknown. The moon rises before him, huge and majestic over the water, and Joe is awed. He speaks to the moon, or to a higher power, or to something beyond the confines of his existence. After years of misery, fluorescent-lit office drudgery, mental trauma, and body pain, it’s come to this, and Joe falls to his knees and cries out with a hoarse and failing voice, “Thank you for my life. I forgot how big…Thank you. Thank you for my life.” He has nothing left inside but gratitude, but the gratitude is all-encompassing and astounding and so big.

It’s an impressive swing, vulnerable and awe-inspiring. Shanley and Hanks land it deftly, which is no small feat. Sometimes I pretend this is where the movie exits reality and that when Joe wakes up, he’s in some other world—heaven, or on top of his brain cloud, or wherever. The island-set portion of the film, with the titular volcano, kind of jumps the shark a little bit. (Or, more specifically, jumps the lava.) But could a film that speaks the fantastic so fluently end in any other way than by having Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan shot out of a volcano like Gonzo flying out of a canon? If we’re going to go there, let’s just go there. The end title card tells us, “they lived happily ever after,” but isn’t “happy” really just another absurdity, capricious and strange? At the end of the crushingly common and the terrifyingly extraordinary, on the other side of drudgery and trauma, perhaps the real goal is to emerge grateful to be alive.

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