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Joe Versus the Volcano is a 1990 comedy film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The first film directed by screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, it was also the first of three films pairing Hanks and Ryan. Despite positive reviews from some critics like Roger Ebert, Joe Versus the Volcano was considered a box office flop, and one of Hanks' minor films. Since then, it has attracted a cult following.


Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is a downtrodden everyman, working in a factory for an unpleasant, demanding boss, Frank Waturi (Dan Hedaya). Joyless, listless, and chronically sick, Banks regularly visits doctors who can find nothing physically wrong. Finally, Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack) diagnoses a fatal, incurable "brain cloud", which ironically has no symptoms, but will kill him in six months. Ellison believes Joe's ailments were psychosomatic, caused by frightening experiences in his previous job as a fireman. Ellison advises him, "You have some life left... live it well." Joe tells his boss off, quits his job, and asks former co-worker DeDe (Meg Ryan) out on a date. It goes well, until he tells her he is dying; she becomes upset and leaves.

The next day, a wealthy industrialist named Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) makes Joe a proposition. Graynamore needs "bubaru", a mineral essential for the manufacturing of superconductors. There are deposits of it on the tiny Pacificmarker island of Waponi Wu, and the resident Waponis will let him mine it if he can solve a problem for them. They believe that the volcano on their island must be appeased by a voluntary human sacrifice once every century, but none of the Waponis is willing to volunteer this time around. If Graynamore can provide someone, he can have the mineral. Graynamore offers Joe credit cards to pay for whatever he wants, as long as he jumps into the volcano at the end, suggesting he "live like a king, die like a man." With nothing to lose, Joe agrees.

Joe spends a day and a night on the town in New Yorkmarker, where he solicits advice on style and life from his wise chauffeur, Marshall (Ossie Davis). Among other things, Joe purchases four top-of-the-line, handcrafted, waterproof steamer trunks from a fanatically dedicated luggage salesman (Barry McGovern).

Joe then flies to Los Angeles, where he is met by one of Graynamore's daughters, Angelica (also played by Ryan), a flighty socialite. The next morning, Angelica takes Joe to a yacht owned by her father. The captain is her half-sister, Patricia (Ryan again). She had reluctantly agreed to take Joe to Waponi Woo after Graynamore promised to give her the yacht in return.

After an awkward beginning, Joe and Patricia begin to bond. Then they run into a typhoon. Patricia is knocked unconscious and flung overboard. While Joe is rescuing her, lightning strikes and sinks the yacht. Fortunately, Joe is able to construct a raft by lashing together his steamer trunks. Patricia does not regain consciousness for several days. Joe doles out the small supply of water to her, while he gradually becomes delirious from thirst. Joe experiences a revelation during his delirium and thanks God for his life. When Patricia finally awakens, she is deeply touched that Joe gave her all the water. They then find that they have fortuitously drifted to their destination.

The Waponis treat them to a grand feast. Their chief (Abe Vigoda) asks one last time if anyone else will volunteer, but there are no takers and Joe heads for the volcano. Patricia tries to stop him, declaring her love for him. He admits he loves her as well, "but the timing stinks." Patricia gets the chief to marry them.

Afterwards, Patricia refuses to be separated from Joe. When he is unable to dissuade her, they jump in together, but the volcano erupts at that moment, blowing them out into the ocean. The island sinks, but Joe and Patricia land near their trusty steamer trunks. At first ecstatic about their miraculous salvation, Joe puts a damper on things by telling Patricia about his fatal brain cloud. She recognizes the name of Joe's doctor as that of her father's crony and realizes that Joe has been lied to. He is not dying and they can live happily ever after (if they can survive being on a raft in the middle of the ocean).


Carol Kane (using the pseudonym "Lisa LeBlanc") and Nathan Lane made cameo appearances.


The original screenplay had a somewhat different ending with the doctor and the industrialist getting their comeuppance.

According to people close to Shanley at the time, the story is based on a near-death experience Shanley had and is his attempt to describe and explain the altered outlook on life he adopted as a result.

Shanley wrote two songs for the movie, "Marooned Without You" and "The Cowboy Song", the former used thematically throughout and the latter performed by Tom Hanks on the ukulele.


The soundtrack for Joe Versus the Volcano, composed by Georges Delerue, was released in very limited numbers as a promotional item. Only 3000 copies were manufactured.

Eric Burdon's updated version of the old country song "Sixteen Tons" was used for the beginning of the film.

After Joe leaves the doctor's office, an edited version of Ray Charles's version of "Ol' Man River" plays while he hugs a Great Dane.

"Mas Que Nada" by Sergio Mendez & Brazil '66 is played while Joe is driven around through New York City during the montage in which he buys various items for his upcoming journey.

A Spanish version of the song "On The Street Where You Live" from the musical My Fair Lady is sung while Joe is having a date in a Polynesian themed restaurant.

The Elvis Presley version of Blue Moon is played as Joe gets ready to spend his final night before heading out on a boat the following day.

Young Rascals "Good Lovin' is played during a scene where Joe catches a shark on board the boat showing off Tom Hanks physical comedy.

The Del Vikings song "Come Go with Me" is played as Joe dances to it on the steamer trunk raft.

Recurring themes

  • The image of a winding road keeps recurring in the movie. It is part of the company logo, the shape of the pathway leading up to Joe's workplace, visible in the plaster damage in Joe's apartment, in the lightning bolt that destroys Patricia's yacht, and in the path to the volcano. "It's taken a long time meeting you, a long time on a crooked road", Joe states late in the movie. Other recurring images include ducks, the façade of the factory, dogs, and the moon.
  • Meg Ryan plays three parts, a symbol for Joe seeming to meet the same woman as a love interest. Joe states, "Did I ever tell you that the first time I saw you, I felt I'd seen you before?" to Dee Dee and to Patricia.
  • When Joe is ready to shed one chapter of his life for another, he also sheds a hat — one in the office and one at the dock.
  • The lampshade in Joe's office has a picture of the volcano. There is also a volcano painted on the side of a building early in the film.
  • Dee Dee sees Joe looking at his shoe and asks him what's wrong. He says "I'm losing my sole." Patricia tells Joe aboard the Tweedledum that she's "soul sick." Later, Joe asks the chief of the Waponis about a doll the chief is holding. The chief refers to it as his tobi, and says "It's my soul." Joe says "I hope you don't lose it", to which the chief replies, "So do I."
  • When Joe is packing his office after quitting, he packs three books: Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey. The themes of these books are the underlying themes to the movie itself.


  1. , "...Joe versus the Volcano has accumulated an impressive cult (sorry, no other word applies) following."
  2. Alternate spelling may be "boobaroo".

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