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‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 09, 1990

It would be hard to say who is cuter, Bambi and Thumper or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Indeed the cute quotient goes through the roof when these spunky sweethearts join forces in the caprice of "Joe Versus the Volcano." Something of a fractured fairy tale, this romantic adventure is Krakatotally lavalicious.

Written by John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his "Moonstruck" screenplay, this happy interlude also marks his directorial debut. And like Cher in "Moonstruck," Hanks plays a hangdog Cinderella transformed by cinemagic, lunacy and love, lots of love. Ryan, that beguiling scamp, plays all the women in Joe's life, a performance that recalls Gilda Radner, Mitzi Gaynor and Lawrence Welk's bubble machine. He's Joe Banks and she's three Graces of Eve -- DeDe, a timid secretary, Angelica, an immature glamourpuss, and Patricia, the ripening helpmate.

Poor Joe doesn't feel good, he's all blotchy and lumpy, symptoms he has developed in the eight years he has worked for American Panascope, the wretched corporate "Home of the Rectal Probe." Once a courageous firefighter, Joe is now the librarian of the corporation's advertising department, supervised by one of the film's inventive kooks, Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya), a two-bit tyrant given to long, loud, monotonous telephone conversations: "I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? Yes, well, I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? Yes, well, I know he can get the job ..." Joe, stirring a clump of cream substitute into a gravy of coffee crystals, eyes googly from the fluorescents, finds he is actually looking forward to his afternoon doctor's appointment.

It's almost a relief when he learns that he is dying of a "brain cloud," which seems better than being bored to death. Then within days Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), a billionaire with blazing eyes and a duck's-head cane, offers Joe a chance to go out in style. The leprechaun-like CEO promises him unlimited credit card privileges and a South Seas cruise if he will voyage to Waponi Woo -- literally "little island with a big volcano" -- and jump into the Big Woo.

The Waponi, a people descended from a galley of Druids and Jews swept off course on the way to Rome, have appeased the volcano by feeding it a native every 100 years. But time is short, no Waponi has volunteered and the mountain's stomach is grumbling. As Waponi Woo is the only source of boomer ore, upon which Graynamore's fortunes depend, he can't risk an eruption.

Devoutly silly and passionately endearing, Joe's odyssey becomes a journey toward death that renews his joy in life. He even manages to enjoy it when the Waponi beat him with sea bass and bananas in a pre-Woo purification rite. His recouped sense of self is in large part thanks to the Graynamore family, especially the independent Patricia, who captains the schooner Tweedledee on the sail to Waponi Woo. It's a land as raucously technicolorful as the factory was dun and drear, a citrus-bright paradise teeming with Polysemitic Celts in leis and celebratory headdresses made of orange soda cans.

Designed by Bo Welch of "Beetlejuice," the production is as visually diverting as a three-ring circus, whether it's the factory's anthropomorphic face, the chichi of a Manhattan men's store or the tiki-tiki kitsch of the Waponi Woo. Shanley, Welch and company clearly have been inspired by everything from the camp of Tarzan adventures to the techno-decay of "Brazil."

Still the movie is humble as child's play, graced with the effortless comedy of Hanks and Ryan. They're as fresh and warm as summer peaches, but never sappy, thanks to the off-kilter honesty of Shanley's writing.

An inventive production of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, "Joe Versus the Volcano" shares that filmmaker's fondness for things celestial, moons as big and bright as a Ferris wheel, and the charity of the gods. Craterrific is what it is.

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