Brigsby Bear threw me for a loop but that “loop” sent me back, at least for a moment, to a very nostalgic place. James (Kyle Mooney) is an adult whose world revolves around a kids show named Brigsby Bear. It’s actually a fake program that was made by the man James believed was his dad (Mark Hamill), and when his “parents” (Hamill, Jane Adams) are finally arrested by their bunker home in the desert, he must gradually adjust to reality.
James’ passion for Brigsby Bear bleeds into his current life, as he’s determined to make his own movie about his lifelong hero. Director Dave McCary and Mooney (who co-wrote) are exploring several themes within their work (thankfully they do it sans heavy-handedness), and the idea of steadfastly holding on to a story/hero, even through one’s adulthood put me back in that aforementioned “place.”
It’s 1990. I’m a UCLA sophomore living in a small yet beautiful apartment on Gayley Avenue. I have three roomies, all at that time good friends (Jerald’s a comic book geek and my freshman roommate, Malvin’s my high school chum, and Orlando is my fellow Filipino brother from another mother). More importantly, Orlando and I share a bond that, even to this day, is inextricable.
We both love Joe Versus The Volcano.
College life wasn’t kind to either Orlando or I during the first two years in college, at least when it came to dating. Though we both “yearned” (yearning is a wasted action that infiltrated my misspent youth) for a girlfriend, that dream grew dim as the year progressed. And if one believes feelings or passions are much stronger during one’s youth, our mutual loneliness left an abyss that wasn’t filled by our hours of playing video games (‘Lando’s go-to was Wing Commander, I went for Ultima VI: The False Prophet).
So when Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), who’s stuck in a dead end job, learns he is dying from a “brain cloud,” he takes up a millionaire’s (Lloyd Bridges) offer to travel to the Pacific Island and jump in a volcano. Meg Ryan, more luminous than the moon that Joe sees in the distance, delivers some of her most moving work, taking on three roles in the flick.
Joe Versus The Volcano tanked upon its release, and considering that’s the same year of Bonfire of the Vanities, 1990 wasn’t too kind movie-wise for Hanks (A League of their Own, released in 1992, was actually considered his mini-comeback from the two flops).
Though Brian De Palma is my favorite filmmaker, there’s really nothing for me to defend re: Bonfire (although the opening tracking shot, featuring Bruce Willis and Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson, is almost as good as the opening of Snake Eyes). It’s a shame, however, that Joe Versus The Volcano, continues to be cast aside. Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail are considered the Hanks & Ryan films, to remember while Joe Versus The Volcano is essentially the forgotten Cunningham.
The plot may be fantastical and the movie itself may come off as campy upon first glance (thanks to its memorable but B-movie-esque moniker), but first impressions usually don’t tell the whole story.
There’s a section in the film where Patricia (Ryan), admits to Joe (Hanks) that her gruff attitude towards him comes from a rather dark place: “I don’t know what your situation is but I wanted you to know what mine is, not just to explain just some rude behavior, but because we’re on a little boat for a while and I’m soul sick – and you’re going to see that.” That sequence, essentially a several minute monologue from Ryan, is one of her finest moments in cinema.
Orlando and I were also soul sick and “lost at sea.” We both wanted to do great things that year, and there were times I’d walk out onto our little balcony and look for that very moon Joe Banks marveled at, waiting for a bit of that glow to light our way.
The flick was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, and if memory serves he spent most of his time at a Beverly Hills hotel (i think it was the Four Seasons) during the production of Joe Versus The Volcano. With the momentum of Moonstruck as well as his first directing gig w/ Joe, one would assume everything came up roses for Shanley (years later, he turned his revered play Doubt into the critically acclaimed film with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams). Even with his past success, Shanley, like Patricia and Joe Banks, has replaced complacency with a continued sense of adventure:
I sat in a cafe in Nice this morning. I am a restless soul, and yet I was content. Each person went by like a bouquet of flowers.
— John Patrick Shanley (@JohnJpshanley) July 15, 2017
Years later I asked Hanks during the You’ve Got Mail junket about working with Shanley on Joe Versus The Volcano, adding how much I loved the film. Hanks praised Shanley’s writing talent, and even mentioned praised Shanley’s script for Bell, Book, and Candle (that remake, unfortunately, never came to fruition).
Back to Orlando. He told me that, if he ever met “the one,” he’d ask her Joe Banks’ go-to pick up line: “Did I ever tell you? The first time I saw you, felt like I’d seen you before.” I agreed to follow suit, and now he’s happily married with two kids and I’m . . . in a local library writing this column ready to watch Joe Versus The Volcano for the first time since 1990!
I watched Joe numerous times on VHS during that college year, wondering when my enlightened Joe Banks moment would come. The truth is my own loneliness, as the years progressed, gave way to a peaceful and rather content solitude, surrounded by close friends and family (I know – it sounds like I’m on my death bed). Viewing my life in a glass half full manner, I’m happy that cinema has served as a minor comfort to roads that I may never travel.
One’s love for cinema is also rooted in its music. There are so many things to love about Joe Versus The Volcano, but at the top of the list is Georges Delerue’s track “Marooned Without You” (lyrics by Shanley). I’ve chop a few onions whenever I hear this track (the OST came out in extremely limited release, which is the only negative thing I can about this movie), and it’s definitely worth a listen:
Marooned Without You
Why is my heart marooned without you
The sun goes down
My dreams begin their refrain
I call to whatever holds you
I wait and I wait
Why is my heart marooned without you
A tiny light upon the sea
My heart is so afraid
You have broken away
Tell me, darling, I pray
You will come to me soon
This is the part in the column where I take my break to finally watch Joe Versus The Volcano, as I received the disc courtesty of the Warner Archive Collection. I’ll offer up my wizened thoughts in a couple of hours . . .
Actually that couple of hours turned into the following day, as I’m currently finishing this up while waiting for my Honda Accord to be serviced. Even years later, the movie continues to resonate. My heart may not be “marooned” as it was so many years ago, but I’m still in the process of searching for a new horizon. And maybe that search never ends whether or not you have someone in your life.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray looks absolutely crisp, and the images definitely pop on the screen. I was definitely satisfied with the transfer, and I actually forgot how certain sections of Joe Versus The Volcano were absolutely visually arresting. Special features on the disc included a four minute featurette on the making of the film (featuring old interviews w/ Shanley, Ryan, and Hanks) and the Eric Burdon music video “Sixteen Tons” (the track is featured during the film’s opening sequence).
As for Brigsby Bear, that flick comes out July 28 in New York and Los Angeles and while it didn’t leave as huge an impact on my life as Joe Versus The Volcano, it still struck a nerve. Both films are open hearted stories that don’t devolve into manipulative, saccharine storytelling. In short, they’re both pretty awesome flicks, and sometimes a great movie is a wonderful way to bolster your emotional state, especially if jumping into a volcano is part of your bucket list.
Lastly, here’s a few of my favorite quotes and facts from Joe Versus The Volcano:
- Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey were the books Joe Banks kept at his work place.
- “This a great town – it stinks – but it’s a great town.” Angelica (Meg Ryan) on describing the beguiling beauty of Los Angeles.
- “The door the the universe is you” – Joe Banks during his date with his co-worker DeDe (Ryan).
- Composer George Delerue’s best known work is his score for Le Mepris (Contempt). That same score was utilized in Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
- Since Joe Versus The Volcano is a film from Amblin Entertainment, it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall.