The Most Underrated Movie Of All Time

May 13, 2020

Note: At more than 4500 words, this is the longest essay I have ever published in this column. Were my subject less worthy, I would not waste readers' time with this meticulous unpacking of a somewhat obscure 1990 film. However, I have been carrying a torch for John Patrick Shanley's masterpiece for over half my life, and am delighted to here tell you as much about it as I can.  

When we say a certain work of art is “underrated,” we mean that either critics or the public are unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge the relative merits of a book, song, painting, and so forth. In order for a film to warrant the title “the most underrated film of all time,” though, estimation of the film in question would have to be very low, and yet, the film would actually have to be a work of remarkable genius. Thus, anyone arguing that a certain film is “the most underrated of all time” would necessarily believe himself the unique custodian of the film’s true meaning, the sole arbiter (or nearly so) of the film’s true and deep value, and believe the commonly received opinion of the film’s worth to be a sad miscarriage of taste by the unwashed masses. I am willing to believe these things.  

When I was eleven years old, I watched ten minutes of Joe Versus the Volcano on HBO and was dumbstruck. On Saturday mornings, I woke early to watch cartoons and, during commercials, flipped around until the image of a sad man in a trench coat arrested me. I watched the man stop, stoop and prop up a daisy that someone had stepped into the cracked pavement through which the flower had grown. A moment later, I learned the man soon die of a brain disease. In learning he had a deathly illness, the man had become fearless. He sassed his stupid boss, quit his stupid job, and reclaimed what little dignity he had left. I was riveted. I was eating little chocolate doughnuts. I turned back to cartoons, although I described the man and his flower and his disease later that morning to my mother.

Several years later, I watched the film in full, and in the last twenty years, I have seen it more than twenty times, revisiting it at least once a year. I think it one of the most dazzlingly complex films created since the end of the Hays Code. Portions of the review you are presently reading were written seven years ago, though I revisited the film just last night and could not bring myself to republish only old thoughts. The film cedes a few more secrets and a little more wisdom with every viewing.  

And yet Joe Versus the Volcano is also a goofy, kitschy romantic comedy which stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It has Big Hollywood Garbage written all over it. So how is this movie so good?

In 1987, John Patrick Shanley took home Best Original Screenplay for Moonstruck. He followed Moonstruck up with two duds before writing and directing Joe Versus the Volcano, also a flop. After Joe, Shanley would not direct anything for eighteen years, resuming the helm with Doubt, a boiling cauldron of a film which is aesthetically unlike Joe in nearly every possible way. Along the way, Shanley wrote the script for We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story in 1993 and Congo in 1995. Given such titles, you wouldn’t figure him the kind of guy to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2005, but he did. When young, Shanley was kicked out of two Catholic schools, then he spent a little time in the Marines. Several years ago, he wrote a libretto for an operatic version of Doubt.

That Pulitzer Prize got a few critics to revisit his earlier work, though there’s only so much digging you can do into an animated dinosaur movie, the title of which features an exclamation mark. At the same time, I never saw We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, so maybe it’s amazing. Joe Versus the Volcano is also a terrible title for a film. Nonetheless, when the Pulitzer Prize winner’s older work came up for reevaluation, Joe struck a lot of critics as the only piece which might actually sustain a second look.

And in the last fifteen years, think pieces on the film have proliferated like tribbles. You can find a few published on better known media outlets, but many of them are written by amateurs and unknown bloggers. Honestly, the lessons of the film are simply too Christian for the writers at Esquire or The New York Times to care.  

In 1990, reviewers were put off by the film’s kitschy quality, but Joe Versus the Volcano is a bit bizarre, as well. It opens with black leader and the sound of an orchestra tuning. Then, a single sentence prologue. Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very, very lousy job. The font used for the opening credits is not comic sans, but it’s close.  

The film opens with the employees at American Panascope (Home of the Rectal Probe) arriving in the morning at a factory, pitching their breakfast garbage in the muddy slop of the parking lot, then slowly trudging along a senselessly crooked walkway to work. Before entering the factory, Joe holds out his arms in supplication and lifts a baffled and sad gaze aloft to the heavens, offering intercession on behalf of all those who labor at American Panascope, as though to say, “How long, O Lord?”

The bowels of the factory are dingy, dark, industrial grey metal and sparks and there’s a joke made about all of American Panascope’s “satisfied customers.” While there is something just a little off-color about American Panascope, it is the same off-color with which Dante painted his Inferno. Hell just wouldn’t be complete without a few 8th grade jokes. Joe Banks descends into the basement of American Panascope, tries to hang his hat on a rack which refuses to do its one job, then proceeds to a concrete room filled with catalogues which he is supposed to send out to customers.

Joe’s boss is Frank Waturi, a grimly self-righteous fellow who senselessly chastises Joe for nothing while telling him he wants to make him “assistant manager,” if only Joe would buck up. When Joe complains he does not feel well, Waturi replies with proverbial certainty, “Nobody feels good. It’s a fact of life. After childhood, everyone feels rotten.” He’s not wrong. Nobody in the office feels good or looks good. Joe’s pale complexion fits seamlessly into the colorless scheme of the office and his limp expression echoes the flaccid spirit of the secretary Dede (Meg Ryan, in one of three roles) and some other phlegmatic drone who sits behind his desk looking lost.

Later that afternoon, Joe goes to the doctor and finds out he is going to die in six months of a “brain cloud.” He has been to many doctors over the years, but none could tell him what was wrong. He is relieved to find he is terminally ill, not just because he will soon escape his miserable life, but because the illness confirms to Joe that life is actually good. He shouldn’t feel bad. The badness is an aberration of reality, not reality itself. Of course, Joe is never very particular when describing his pain. He doesn’t say his stomach hurts, or his head, or his back. His boss understands Joe’s sickness better than Joe does. “After childhood, everyone feels rotten,” implies Joe’s sickness is not physical, but spiritual.

After learning he will die, Joe returns to the office as an avenging spirit and quits in dramatic fashion while Waturi looks on helplessly. Joe admits he has wasted his life and packs up a few things from his desk, including a child’s bedside lamp with a shade that rotates while playing the movie’s theme on a music box, and copies of Robinson Crusoe, Homer’s Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet from his desk, all of which prefigure the second and third acts of the film. Before leaving the office for good, Joe asks Dede to dinner that night and she agrees. Having wasted much of his life trying to figure out how to feel better, the impending certainty of his own death seems to have done the trick no medicine or therapy could quite manage.

At dinner, Joe is flushed with color, smiling and laughing, sanguinely chatting up Dede over tacos. He talks about how good he feels. Back at his place, while kissing her in his doorway, Joe asks Dede if she will spend the night, but then suddenly confesses what he learned earlier in the afternoon. “You’re going to die?” asks Dede, pulling away. “Yeah, but so what? Just stay tonight. Tomorrow will take care of itself,” replies Joe. Unable to handle the news, Dede suddenly runs out.

We want Joe’s knowledge of his own death to inspire him to greatness and so we cheer when he quits his hellish job, for he shows flashes of purity and genius. However, when Joe propositions Dede, he seems no less desperate than in the opening scene, having sold himself in slavery to a crooked path. The eminence of death may awaken a pious knowledge in man that “all flesh is grass,” or it might make a man a greater slave to passion than he ever was, trying to squeeze in all the sensual gratification time will allow. In moving between these two points, Shanley shows Joe at a crossroads. He can either embrace the courage he displayed in his grand exit from Hell or the base sensuality manifested in the doorway of his home.

Joe’s “brain cloud” is perhaps a reference to older, darker literature. In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the titular Ivan, a vain and preening judge, is hanging some curtains one day when he falls, bumps his side, and in so doing sustains an injury that costs him his life less than a month later— all the while, a vain and preening doctor tells Ivan he has a “floating kidney,” a non-existent disease for a man with a non-existent soul. So, too, Joe has a fake job, a fake life, and it seems fitting he should die of a fake ailment. Ivan Ilyich doesn’t escape Tolstoy’s novella with his life, although he does find repentance in the closing pages. From the first, we don’t suspect Joe would die in a PG rated comedy, and neither does he seem such a terrible sinner as Ivan. He is unhappy, pouring his life out in fruitless work. While the problem of the film is drawn clearly and quickly, no simple solution is laid out for Joe to take hold of.

The morning after his ill-fated date with Dede, Joe (wearing a bathrobe and dress socks) pensively strums a ukulele at the breakfast table when an immaculately dressed and highly eccentric old man named Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) unexpectedly shows up, invites himself in, and joyfully knocks a few holes in Joe’s wall while Joe looks on in a daze. Graynamore knows Joe’s doctor, knows all about his condition, and has shown up to make Joe a strange proposition.

Graynamore: What do you know about super conductors?

Joe: Nothing.

Graynamore: Me neither. But I own a huge company that dominates the world market for super conductors. You got any whiskey?

Joe: Nope.

Graynamore: I want to hire you Joe Banks. I want to hire you to jump into a volcano.

Joe: I… you know… I do have some whiskey.

In order to make his super conductors, Graynamore needs a mineral called bubaru, which can only be found in one place on earth, the island of Waponi Woo. Every hundred years, a man “of his own free will” must jump into the Waponi volcano to appease an angry god. Up until this point in their partnership, Graynamore has plied the Waponi people with Jump, an orange soda they inexplicably adore, and in exchange for the soda, he has been allowed to drill for bubaru on their island. His right to drill has suddenly stopped, though, and the Waponi have asked Graynamore to find them a hero. If Graynamore can find such a man, the Waponi will give him drilling rights again.  

Having explained the deal, Graynamore lays out four credit cards before Joe and says that if he is willing to jump into the volcano, he can have the credit cards and spend the rest of his short life in style.

Lloyd Bridges has such a hell of a time playing up the scene, viewers may overlook several salient points about his offer. Graynamore does not put a suitcase of green money in front of Joe to tempt him, but credit cards emblazoned with Joe’s very own name. Joe doesn’t need to jump into a volcano to get the credit cards. They’re already his. The credit card companies don’t know that Joe is going to die. He could sign up for a dozen more, max out them all, then die and never pay back a dime.

Before making a decision, Joe picks up a single credit card and examines it, considering the offer. I suspect Joe realizes he can keep the cards but reject Graynamore’s offer, which means that when he accepts the offer, it isn’t the opportunity to live his last few days “in style” that leads Joe to agree. Joe is more attracted by the final sacrifice he’ll make than the gluttony he’ll get to enjoy until then. At least, this is what we hope when Joe agrees to jump. It might be too early in the film to make such a generous assessment of Joe.  

If we read American Panascope as a kind of hell, it is telling that Graynamore shows up at Joe’s apartment less than a day after he escapes. Graynamore is like a perverse good shepherd who is vexed that one of his victims has gotten away. When Joe quits his job at American Panascope, he complains that he “sold his life” to Frank Waturi for “three hundred dollars a week.” A day later, he’s selling his soul to Samuel Graynamore for a few dollars more.

There’s a kind of satanic quality to Graynamore’s offer, then, for in tempting a man to sin, the Devil never offers a man anything other than that man’s own life. Sin is an abuse of the body, an attempt to render the body a soulless pleasure receptor. The body can experience physical stimulation in sin, but cannot enjoy pleasure in sin because enjoyment is an event which takes place in the spirit. In sin, the spirit is darkened, unable to receive the action of the body. For this reason, sin is often confusing to the sinner. While physical stimulation has taken place, satisfaction has not. Something seems amiss, as though a reassuringly large red button has been pushed, and yet no action has resulted. So, too, when Joe agrees to jump, we feel that something momentous has begun in his life, but we are uncertain what it will be. We can imagine his jump into the volcano somehow transforming into a salvific act, and yet Joe takes about three seconds to consider Graynamore’s offer, and when he is decided, he doesn’t declare his willingness with a handshake and smile, or a bold, “Fine, I’ll do it!” Rather, he mumbles, “All right. I’ll do it.” It’s not mock-heroic, but heroic-mock.

Before departing New York, Joe buys himself a new set of clothes and four massive steamer trunks, the latter of which seem needlessly expensive and laughably unnecessary, although his lavish expenditure at the luggage store prompts a luggage salesman (presumably working on commission) to say, “May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.” Pious viewers—or superstitious ones— are left free to debate whether the salesman’s comic line proves an efficacious blessing by the film’s denouement, but at the moment he makes the purchase, Joe seems to be rather glibly tossing money around. It is tempting to lump Joe’s purchase of an Armani tuxedo in with the purchase of the steamer trunks, but there’s something deeper going on with that tux.

Joe hires a limo to chauffer him around Manhattan while he makes his final trip purchases, though he’s never had money before and doesn’t know where to shop. Presuming his limo driver knows the best place to buy a new wardrobe, Joe off-handedly asks Marshall (Ossie Davis) for a recommendation. Marshall pulls the car over, says, “The clothes make the man. I believe that,” chastises Joe for treating clothes in such a glib manner, then drives him to a half dozen fine stores on 5th Avenue. While they are both being fitted for tuxedos (Joe’s treat), Joe says, “I feel like I’m getting married,” and Marshall says, “I feel like I’m giving you away.” Were it not for later developments in the film, Marshall the limo driver would be nothing more than an amusing side-character.

From New York, Joe flies to Los Angeles, where he will board a yacht and sail to the South Pacific. Graynamore’s flakey daughter Angelica (also played by Meg Ryan) meets Joe at LAX, shows him the city, and finally offers to sleep with him, though he declines. The fact Joe turns Angelica down suggests he has entered a state of flux, for Angelica is not only physically identical with Dede, she is just as spiritually dead, to boot. What changed between Dede and Angelica? The clothes— and the clothes make the man. The allusion to marriage during the tux fitting gets Joe thinking of himself as a groom, albeit one without a bride, but fidelity to an ideal will keep him chaste while he waits for the right woman to reveal herself.    

The purchase of a better set of clothes also gets Joe to consider the limitations of physical pleasure and the nature of his own regret. As he falls asleep alone in his LA hotel, he likely replays the last several days in his head and realizes that if he and Dede had slept together after their first date, he wouldn’t have accepted Graynamore’s offer. Instead, he would accepted a fleeting fling with Dede as his final consolation in life, and never had the opportunity to think of himself as anything more.   

The night after Joe doesn’t sleep with Angelica, he boards a yacht bound for Waponi Woo. The yacht is piloted by Patricia Graynamore (also Meg Ryan), who claims she is Angelica’s “half-sister.” Unlike the blanched Dede and overdone Angelica, Patricia actually looks like Meg Ryan in her natural state, thus the audience begins cozying up to the idea they’ve finally encountered a real woman. As a real woman, though, Patricia isn’t in a good mood when she first meets Joe and, to his consternation, keeps referring to him as “Felix,” even though she knows this is not his name. The tiff over Joe’s name is paradoxical, though, for “Felix” means happy and by the end of their voyage, Patricia will not simply call Joe “happy,” she will have made him “happy.”

Before the end of their first day together, Patricia asks Joe bluntly if he slept with Angelica, and he says he did not. She softens to him immediately and confesses that she has agreed with her father to deliver Joe to Waponi Woo in exchange for the boat, a family heirloom. The deal doesn’t sit right with Patricia because she wants nothing to do with her father, the liar, but has been pulled back into his orbit by his tantalizing offer. Like Joe, who sold his life to Frank Waturi “for three hundred bucks a week,” Patricia has also traded her ideals for material gain. Both Joe and Patricia want freedom from the City of Man, but both are easily enticed.

The next several days journey on the high seas pass comfortably, fishing. In the evening, over dinner, Joe asks Patricia if she believes in God, and she replies that she believes in herself.

Joe: What does that mean?

Patricia: I have confidence in myself.

Joe: I’ve been doing some soul searching lately. Been asking myself some pretty tough questions. You know what I found out? I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself and I get bored out of my mind.

Joe has dinner with Dede, Angelica and Patricia. After the first date, Dede rejects Joe. After the second date, Joe rejects Angelica, but during the third, Joe comes to an impasse. It seems doubtful he is interested in romancing Patricia, given that he is shortly to die. While her response to his question about the life of God disappoints him, their conversation comes at the end of a montage which suggests their emerging friendship. In becoming bored with himself, Joe has become a truly interesting person. While she doesn’t admit it at the time, we later find that Patricia was impressed with Joe’s claim he bored himself. “Any man who is bored with himself might be genuinely interested in me,” she must be thinking.

In a storm, the yacht goes down and Joe and Patricia are saved on his pile of magnificently buoyant steamer trunks. They spend four or five days adrift on the open water. Joe rummages through his steamer trunks for the junk he bought, entertaining himself while Patricia is unconscious from the shock of the ship sinking. Joe sets up an umbrella to shade her sleeping body, and spares what little fresh water there is on hand for her, thimbling it through her lips in a bottle cap about the size of a communion cup. Joe is happy, though, listening to luau music on a world band radio and dancing whilst nursing Patricia back to health. Time takes its toll, though, and after several days, Joe is dying of hunger and thirst. While Patricia continues to sleep, Joe witnesses the moon rise very suddenly over the horizon, full and brightly luminous. Joe raises his arms, just as he did in frustration during the opening scene of the film, and prays the simplest, and most apophatic prayer in motion picture history:

Dear God, whose name I do not know. Thank you for my life. I forgot how big. Thank you. Thank you for my life.

Having said this, he collapses. The death which Joe selfishly consented to earlier in the film is transformed into a kind of martyrdom. He no longer hates his life, but is grateful for it; in gratitude, Joe will no longer cling to his life, but give it back to the same good God from which it came. A day later, the steamer trunks mysteriously find their way to Waponi Woo.

Having said as much about the film as I already have, it might seem strange to say that after Joe arrives on the island, “Things finally get interesting,” but it’s true. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are so wonderfully dense, I don’t know how I can address every compelling issue raised therein.

For starters, the Waponi go out to meet Joe as though he were a messiah riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. He is carried aloft, they wave branches over him, for they know he has come to save them. However, a mock crucifixion follows wherein Joe is ceremonially prepared to jump into the volcano. He is scourged with fish, has bananas smashed into his cheeks, and must painfully pluck a suction-stuck octopus from his face. It’s all played for laughs, though it’s humiliating, and the Waponi are laughing at him the entire time. While Joe is being cartoonishly crucified, Patricia is getting a spa treatment somewhere else on the island, and the film cuts back and forth between Joe’s suffering and Patricia’s good health. The whole thing seems an amusingly light reference to, “By His wounds, we are healed.”

At a customary meal that night, the Waponi chief admits his embarrassment to Joe that none of his own people is willing to jump in the volcano. According to an ancient custom, the Waponi chief is not permitted to sacrifice himself, for it is his place to “hope for his people.” In the original script for the film, the chief tells Joe he shouldn’t jump in the volcano but should flee the island and make a new life for himself. They have all become addicted to orange soda, which has rotted their teeth and their souls. If not a single Waponi is willing to give his life for his people, the chief says, they all deserve to die. As they eat, a Waponi shaman wears a massive ceremonial mask and walks around taunting the people. His mask is, oddly enough, a spitting image of the American Panascope factory. Once again, the chief petitions his people for a savior, but finding no volunteers, Joe, Patricia, the chief, and all the Waponi people begin their long walk up the volcano, which is rumbling, shaking, and appears on the cusp of erupting.  

Their path up the side of the volcano is crooked. It is the same crooked path Joe walked to work every morning at American Panascope and the same crooked shape of the lightning which took down Patricia’s yacht. The film contains a number of visual references back to itself, the foremost of which is Meg Ryan, but as in all great stories, everything important happens more than once. Joe Versus the Volcano is not a movie about quitting a lousy job. It is a movie about figuring out how to enjoy life while holding down a lousy job. Outside of American Panascope, Joe found a world that was eerily similar. Same flighty women, same enslaved men, same crookedness. As my good friend Jon Paul Pope noted in a recent discussion, the film is not concerned with a journey outward, but a journey inward. Joe doesn’t create a better life for himself, he just lives his old life better. If Joe ever makes it back to New York, I could almost believe that he'd go back to his old job at American Panascope, climb the corporate ladder, take it over, repave the parking lot, make straight the crooked paths, fire his boss, and make it a great place to work. 

On the verge of jumping in, Patricia tells Joe she wants to marry him. The chief performs a hasty ceremony, then Patricia says she wants to jump with him. They exchange a few words of trepidation, then leap together, but as they are plummeting toward the lava, a sudden burst of hot wind from the bowels of the volcano sends the newlyweds shooting back out, across the sky like stars, and they land in the ocean a thousand yards off the beach. While treading water, the steamer trunks miraculously appear again, and after climbing aboard, Joe and Patricia watch the island of Waponi sink into the water. 

Earlier in the film, we learn that before he began working at American Panascope, Joe was a firefighter. At the end of the movie, he has extinguished one more fire, thus fulfilling a destiny which lay dormant while he was locked up in the factory dungeon. However, when Joe defeats the final fire, the Christological allusions are also quite rich. Joe is the final sacrifice, the sacrifice which puts an end to an ancient system of human sacrifice. With the Waponi island at the bottom of the ocean, the satanic Graynamore has been defeated, as well, for his company can no longer manufacture super conductors. Choose your favorite atonement theory. It's here.

A first viewing of the film will prove delightful, but seven or eight views later, a discerning audience member will slowly realize that absolutely nothing in the film exists accidentally or haphazardly. Everything has been carefully chosen and immaculately arranged and presented. There are still a few pieces left of the film which I can’t quite find a place for, but another twenty viewings should shore that up.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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