A Long Time, on a Crooked Road…

By Jennifer Allen

With most of the world's population in social isolation currently, many of us have some extra time to do things we're not often accustomed to. We are now in a strange state of limbo with many social events we were looking forward to suddenly canceled or postponed for sake of our own health. Honestly if we didn't have the technology we have now, we'd probably go completely stir crazy in our isolation from human interaction.

And yet to me it's possible to reach a point where our scenario is akin to a constantly shifting purgatory and its state changing minute by minute. The more we sit in our homes and occasionally chat with others by means of technology, the more I realize just how much we as human beings rely on those interactions in order to survive socially as a species.

This made me think of a film that just turned 30 this year; Joe vs the Volcano starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Considering that Tom and his wife Rita Wilson were the first celebrities to come out and say they contracted COVID-19, it seemed like sheer serendipity had struck my brain and I tugged it out for a re-watch.

“Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe..."

Joe vs the Volcano is a 1990 film written and directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley who had previously won an Oscar for the screenplay to Moonstruck. It is, in its purest form, a fairy tale. It's a somewhat akin to a tender Bollywood love story but with a much more subtleness to it. It's got gorgeous sets, stylized prose with an existential base, and amazing performances by the entire cast. It's a truly heartfelt story in a film that sadly bombed at the box office. I honestly think it was just too far ahead of its time for early 90's audience to deal with. The first time I watched it was in 1991 and something just… “Clicked" with me. I knew this film was special… and it deserved much more love than it initially received.

The film starts with a fully grey palette and a plethora of workers driving in for yet another day at their mundane job. Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is one of those many workers who shuffle along through the gate like placated zombies. This obviously symbolizes a time in our lives where we feel like we're just treading water and not making any headway. A routine has taken over and has chased away all of our dreams and ambitions; burying hopes under a pile of paperwork, bills, responsibilities, and obligations.

Joe, a hypochondriac due in part to his now stagnate existence, goes to visit Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack) and learns after conducting many tests that he has a terminal illness called a “brain cloud" and roughly six months to live. While a “brain cloud" doesn't sound like a plausible diagnosis, hearing it from the lips of the man who narrated the “Unsolved Mysteries" TV series would make you believe just about anything.

More importantly, Joe's suffering has both an explanation and a definite endpoint; a diagnosis packaged with a newfound sense of freedom. Where Joe was in a coma-like state when he arrived that morning, it is replaced by a sense of vitality and bewilderment of living this life for so long. He quits his job and tells off his boss, packing up his bag with just three books and his ukulele. He asks the dept. secretary DeDe out on a date and then leaves with his chest held high for the first time in ages.

Live like a king. Die like a man. That's What I say..."

This kicks off the 2nd act with Joe's journey to break free from this boxed-in world. Thanks to a proposition from eccentric billionaire Samuel Harvey Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) he agrees to jump into a large volcano on the island of Waponi Woo in exchange for extremely rare mineral called Boobaroo.

From there Joe goes forth on a quest that is both literal and symbolic as he partakes on a grand voyage, but it also becomes his search for meaning, wisdom, and to realize the things in life that truly matter. This is helped along by a matter-of-fact limo driver named Marshall (Ossie Davis), a luggage salesman (Barry McGovern) who steers him toward some amazing steamer trunks, and finally Angelica and Patricia Graynemore (both played by Meg Ryan).

“Did I ever tell you? The first time I saw you, it felt I'd seen you before."

All of Meg Ryan's characters (DeDe, Angelica & Patricia) are perhaps the most blatant signs of how Joe's life progresses rest of the film. Dede is someone he's dreamed about but upon actually getting to know her, finds she's shallow and fearful... like Joe has been for the last few years. Angelica is a self-described “flibbertigibbet" obsessed with material and wealth and yet empty and alone. Patricia is outspoken and independent, but she is also frustrated with the connections to her father which keep her from enjoying life to the fullest.

“My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement."

Just past the 1-hour mark of the film is a scene that always gives me a “happy cry" no matter how many times I watch it. Eventually the Tweedle Dee yacht they were planning to ride to Waponi Woo is struck by lightning and sinks. Joe, Patricia, and his four steamer trunks are the only survivors and Patricia is unconscious due to an accident during the storm. They are then adrift for days in the middle of a seemingly endless ocean. Joe, half exhausted, sunburnt, and dehydrated tries with his entire shaking form to stand and welcome the giant white orb that rises on the horizon. He reaches up with a sense of gratitude and humbled amazement that can only come from having every single thing you've ever known stripped away including fear and doubt, and yet continuing to live on.

“I've been miserable so long, years of my life wasted, afraid. Been a long time coming here to meet you – a long time, on a crooked road."

Finally, they reach Waponi Woo after being spotted, and Patricia finally realizes that Joe is her counterpart. He fills the emptiness that she's been missing, and it turns out Joe feels the same way. Ultimately we only followed Joe's journey, but it's implied that Patricia has dealt with similar circumstances and so they meet at the peak of their own crooked roads. The journey to awaken is never linear but instead a long, winding road filled with false starts, poor choices, and bad turns. However, if we persevere and struggle to reach the apex of that road, we can find our way out of fear and instead to fully enjoy life with gratitude and awe.

“And they lived happily ever after..."


Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer, Graphic Artist, Martial Arts Practitioner, and all around Pop Culture Geek.