With Joe Versus the Volcano, screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) makes his directorial debut, an uneven offering of self-conscious paraphrases of standard cinematic set pieces. Displaying the unfocused enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store, he creates detailed scenes — of unimaginably grim factory life, absurdly colorful Polynesian natives, an expensive New York spending spree — that waffle between satire and sincerity, leaving it to the viewer to sort out their significance.
Joe (Tom Hanks) is a hypochondriac loser who’s liberated by the news that he’s dying, then moved into action by a tycoon with a business proposition: live high on the hog and then sacrifice himself on a remote island. For no clear reason, Meg Ryan hammily plays all three women on Joe’s journey, handmaidens to his philosophical epiphanies about life and courage. Though the movie is punctuated by the occasional sharply cast cameo or genuinely witty bit, it mostly leaves its two stars alone to grapple with the starchy, overloaded script — they talk all the way to the mouth of the volcano.
In keeping with the film’s stylistic archness, Shanley shot the movie in a wide-screen format that exacerbates the problem of fitting rectangular pictures into television’s squarish eye. Fortunately, Shanley’s visual ideas are less ambitious than his verbal pretensions, so the effect of lopping off the edges is no more noticeable here than on most movies on tape. In fact, the movie’s grandiose aspirations, which fell so flat in theaters, are tempered on video. So, while Joe Versus the Volcano still largely misses the mark, it manages to score enough points to be a sporadically entertaining rental. C-