Picks and Pans Review: Joe Versus the Volcano

updated 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan

The commercials are misleading. This is not a ditzy, off-the-wall, run-of-the-mill comedy. It's a comedy all right, but it's whimsical, not ditzy, literate, not off-the-wall. And there's nothing run-of-the-mill about it. Writer John Patrick (Moonstruck) Shanley makes his directing debut by taking chances with deliberately paced contemplative scenes that demand an audience's attention and, in a way, participation. In one touching moment, Hanks, having just been told by a doctor that he has a "brain cloud" and only a few months to live, walks out of the medical building. The camera pulls back to show Hanks watching, then embracing, an old woman who is walking by with her dog; there's no dialogue, only Ray Charles singing "Old Man River" on the sound track.

No question: This is not a realistic comedy, but it's unrealistic in almost poetic ways. The plot hinges on an offer Hanks gets from tycoon Lloyd Bridges: If Hanks will go to a South Pacific island and appease its natives by sacrificing himself to a volcano, the natives will give Bridges a rare mineral he needs, and he will bankroll a few days of utter luxury for Hanks. In New York, Hanks meets Ossie Davis, a thoughtful chauffeur who moonlights as a fashion adviser. He meets Carol Kane, in an amusing cameo as a hairstylist, and Abe Vigoda as the phlegmatic chief of the island natives.

And he runs into Ryan. Actually, he runs into Ryan three times. Inexplicably, Ryan has three roles: dull secretary in the office where Hanks works, spoiled California brat, and captain of the yacht that takes Hanks to the island. Ryan is cute and charming in all guises, but the multi-roles seem pointlessly show-offy.

The dialogue ranges widely. Robert Stack, the doctor who diagnoses Hanks, tells him soberly, "The cumulative anxiety of your brushes with death have left you permanently fearful." Hanks, seeing Los Angeles for the first time, says, "It looks fake. I like it." Ryan, telling Hanks that she agreed to captain the yacht only because her father promised to give it to her, confesses, "I feel ashamed because I had a price. He named it, and now I know that about myself."

There are also miracles, the island's colorful natives (who are obsessed with orange soda) and, in general, nothing predictable, nothing clich├ęd. Here, in short, is a modern comedy you can laugh at and still respect yourself in the morning. (PG)

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