Meg Ryan has had a peculiar career: America’s darling after When Harry Met Sally (1989), she has struggled to avoid typecasting as the perky cute girl ever since, and largely failed, settling for a saccharine portrayal in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and veering into downright parody of her persona in the remakes You’ve Got Mail (1998) and The Women (2008), with brief moments of authenticity (When a Man Loves a Woman) in between. While some of the blame must rest with Ryan, it’s clear that Hollywood producers failed to recognize (or thought audiences would) the depth in When Harry Met Sally, instead plying the poor actress with cane sugar ever since. That’s why it’s so fascinating to peer earlier into Ryan’s career, when the exploration of character was (at least partially) her own to make. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) is particularly fascinating since she plays three roles, which curiously foretell her fate.
The plot is strange, so I’ll just begin with the basics: Joe’s (Tom Hanks’) fears–especially for his health–keep him mired in a dreadful job, until a dire prognosis unexpectedly snaps him out of depression and leads him on a journey to an island where an odd fate awaits him. He goes on a date with coworker DeDe (Ryan) before he departs, then meets half-sisters Angelica (Ryan) and Patricia (Ryan) on his journey. Attracted to all three (he keeps saying they look familiar), Hanks falls for only one, Patricia, who captains the boat to his destination, and plays a part in what awaits him there.
In DeDe, Ryan channels Easy Living‘s (1937) Mary Smith (Jean Arthur). Naïve and sweet and just a little lost, DeDe disperses–at least a little–the heavy gloom of the office, where she and Joe suffocate under fluorescent lighting and the repetitive yelling of their boss (Dan Hedaya, in a darkly funny turn).
When Joe quits the job and asks DeDe out, it’s an act of salvation, and you can’t help but laugh at her startled, perky response to finding the dead weight in her office come to vivid life. Like Arthur, Ryan performs this role with relish and charm, with a chirpy voice that doesn’t quite grate in the small time we’re listening to it. Much more time spent with this character would start to wear audiences thin (as Arthur does for me–uncharacteristically–in Easy Living).
Next Joe encounters oddball Angelica (Ryan), who calls herself a flibbertigibbet.
We viewers soon question her characterization, realizing that this woman has no idea who she is. She’s donned a pretentious, flat delivery and tired expressions culled from movies in her LA home. Her clothes likewise seem costumish, as does her carefully stylish smoking. She’s a combination of affectations she’s adopted, none of which can delay for long the depression and fragility just beyond her careful poise. If DeDe recalls the cute head bobbing and springy step Ryan deployed too consciously by the point of You’ve Got Mail, Angelica conveys her pain at the impersonation, her relief at capturing her fuller self in movies such as When a Man Loves a Woman.
And of course, in Patricia, Joe’s last Ryan encounter, we find our heroine. Healthy besides being “soul sick” for taking her father’s money, Patricia is smart and strong and brave, our Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) of The Lady Eve (1941). Like Jean, she’s an “adventuress on the high seas” and wise enough to guide Joe on the final steps of his self-discovery.
This is the Ryan we love: cute, yes, but only in moments of glee; she’s bold and womanly and fun, yet vulnerable and flawed. It’s the type of role Ryan excelled at. While the two other parts feel like conscious acts (and should be, as the roles are archetypes rather than fully sketched-out characters), this last she fully embodies. And we see the Stanwyck type of performer she could have consistently been, had When Harry not doomed her to full-on cuteness.
As for the film itself, what to say? It’s about redemption and faith, journeys physical and spiritual, but is most remembered for orange soda and hypochondria jokes.
The fact is, Joe versus the Volcano (1990) is an odd duck of a film. Its uneven tone and quirky storytelling won it both mockery and box office failure, and a trail of cult devotees ever since. Frank Capra and Preston Sturges fans will adore it, especially those who admire those directors’ darker-tinged fare, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Meet John Doe (1941) and The Miracle Woman (1931). But snooty film types will scoff (tellingly, Roger Ebert loved it); they’ll say it’s silly. And they’re right–it is silly. Fundamentally so.
But, as one devotee pointed out, you need to remember that the writer/director is John Patrick Shanley, who also helmed and wrote Doubt (2008) and penned Moonstruck (1987); this guy may be consumed with issues of faith and hope, but he also loves distracting diatribes about fake hands voiced by Nicholas Cage. If you’re not open to that kind of genre blending, you’ll hate the movie. But if you agree with me that Shanley’s work has a peculiar beauty and insight, you’ll find yourself riveted and laughing, admiring Tom Hanks’ finest performance, and one of the funniest portrayals of both fashion (thanks to Ossie Davis) and workplace culture in any medium. It’s even romantic, with the two leads’ chemistry revealing what a better script and direction could have made of You’ve Got Mail.
And the soundtrack is so unbelievably fun and fitting that you won’t ever hear one of those songs again without picturing the story.
For me, this movie was life altering. I watched it first in the theater, and couldn’t stop laughing at the opening scene of work drudgery. But no one else was laughing. Surprised, I turned to my buddy, Carrie, and saw that she was enjoying it too. We called our sicknesses after that “brain clouds” (you have to see the film), and the movie represented for me that wonderful thing between friends: a joke you get that others don’t, a bond you share that others don’t understand. Something that in snobby moments makes you feel special, and in more enlightened ones makes you appreciative. I was in high school then, still finding my way, and it was lovely to find through Joe a compatriot in Carrie, to realize that quirkiness need not be isolating, that it can be, in fact, a source of joy. My loud laughter in silent theaters has been a constant ever since.
I’ve been watching the film again today for my entry in the wonderful Dual Roles blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. (Check out great entries here!) And as I view the movie, I find myself hoping, like Joe: I hope Ryan stops stalling on DeDe and Angelica, and instead gets her Patricia back, gives us in future performances that authenticity that was so wholly hers at the start. She should watch the film again, remember that Joe, like her, lost his way for years, and found it again. Maybe if she watches it she’ll rediscover that energy and spirit and realness that charmed us all, and are still hers to reclaim.