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‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ (PG) and ‘The Plot Against Harry’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 09, 1990

Joe of "Joe Versus the Volcano" and Harry of "The Plot Against Harry" have the same predicament: Death is staring them in the face and it's time to look at their not-so-wonderful lives differently.

Neither "Volcano" (produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and opening big), nor "Harry" (a black-and-white independent movie and opening small) could be mistaken for great movies, but both exude a certain playfulness, at least during their better moments, that's hard to resist.

Unfortunately, "Volcano," written and directed by "Moonstruck" scriptwriter John Patrick Shanley, blows hot and cold and Michael Roemer's "Harry," though its comedic soft touch is appealing, seems unendingly flat. "Volcano" could have used some of "Harry's" subtleties, while "Harry" could have borrowed a volcanic peak or two from Shanley's film.

"Volcano" gets most of its fire from Tom Hanks, whose in-built comic exuberance refuses to be doused, even in movies such as "The 'Burbs" and "Turner & Hooch." As the beleaguered working stiff who, after hearing he has a fatal "brain cloud," heads for the fictional Pacific island of Waponi Woo (where the natives live for orange soda and need a human sacrifice for the volcano god), Hanks is the only reason you'd want to see the movie..

"I can feel them sucking the juice out of my eyeballs," he says, looking up through puffy, squinty eyes at the buzzing, flickering fluorescent office light that has hung over him for eight years. But Shanley's movie (as with his scripts for "Five Corners" and "The January Man") doesn't consolidate the amusement (Hanks) with the romance (Meg Ryan, in three spirited but narratively loose roles). The playwright-turned-filmmaker writes in original, comic flashes (luggage, a sales ascontinued on next page from previous page sistant tells Hanks, "is the central preoccupation of my life"), but despite amusing cameos from Abe Vigoda (as chief of the Waponis), Robert Stack (as the doctor with the bad news), Lloyd Bridges (a businessman with an interesting proposition) and Ossie Davis (as a chauffeur who gives Hanks sartorial advice), Shanley can't keep his feature-length fire burning.

In "Harry," a black-and-white gangster-comedy shot in 1969, but only released now {see Film Notes on this page}, the mood is distinctly less commercial than "Volcano," the humor less underlined. You're invited to fish for the comedy within the movie, within Harry's world, which happens to be falling apart around the hapless schlemiel's ears.

A small-time racketeer, back from nine months in the slammer, Harry (Martin Priest) finds out from trusty sidekick Max (Henry Nemo) that his territory has been taken over by not-so-trusty lieutenant Big Julie (Julius Harris). Harry also reencounters estranged ex-wife Kay (Maxine Woods) and family when their cars collide. Then, when he is rushed to hospital after a sudden collapse, Harry is told his heart is twice the size it should be.

Now looking at life through suddenly different eyes, Harry realizes it's not necessarily a wonderful life but it sure is a big family: His daughter has a child, with one on the way, and there's another daughter, an aspiring model/actress, he never even knew he had. In the face of overwhelming economic disaster, family pressure and impending death, Harry goes legit, which means reentering the world of bar mitzvahs, horas, fashion parades and dog shows that his family lives in. It also involves testifying before a congressional committee, buying into brother-in-law Leo's catering business and donating money to a charity telethon.

Priest's hoodlum-naif ("Out working since he was 8 years old," brags his unsuspecting mother) and angelic face keep the movie going through that episodic flatness; and when Harry joins Leo's Mystic Knights of the Sojourners, director Roemer stages it as a celestial crowning for a bighearted guy who's learned that giving it up is sometimes better than living it up.

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