Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) works in a dead end job in a factory making appliances and goo for various medical needs, but all these years of ploughing away at something he doesn't care one jot about while all around him reduces his existence to a form of numb misery isn't doing his health any good. His boss (Dan Hedaya) criticises him for a variety of reasons Joe is too enervated to stand up to him about as his colleague DeDe (Meg Ryan) wishes he would, so when he brings in a novelty lamp to brighten his office, such levity is futile, and besides, he still has his doctor's appointments to remind him he is in failing health. But what is really wrong with Joe? Could it be something more serious than he would care to think?
What is actually wrong with Joe is life - life is wrong with him. Writer and director John Patrick Shanley, coming off a big hit and an Oscar win with Moonstruck, was offered the chance to make his own movie by Steven Spielberg and company and Joe Versus the Volcano was the result, a modern day fairy tale that meant a lot to its creator but failed to strike a chord with the public, briefly visiting cinemas to very little impact. However, something this determinedly whimsical was always going to find some audience or other, and as if often the case a true eccentricity in the form of a film became the centre of a cult following, with its adherents finding something profound here.
Whether it was actually as meaningful as all that was a moot point, for if you perceived something in this which you could relate to then no amount of denial that it was nothing but a wooly-headed feelgood flick with an overdose of the cutesy married to fridge magnet philosophy was going to negate the resonance Shanley's message had for you. It was certainly carefully designed to look like a vintage cartoon, both in plot and imagery, only those took up under ten minutes of screen time and this was over ninety, giving the impression of a sweet idea stretched out way past the breaking point. When Joe visits his doctor (Robert Stack) he has bad news for the office drone: he has a rare condition known as a brain cloud, and only has six months to live. Less than that, in fact. So what options does he have now?
He can pack that terrible job in for a start, and the opening sequences riffing on another cult movie, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, are brought to a head when Joe tells his boss what he thinks of him then asks DeDe out for a meal as he is exiting the building. She accepts, triggering his newfound embrace of life when he has been ignoring it for so long, but there's a snag when he admits why he found this fresh lease on seizing the moment: DeDe doesn't want a boyfriend who will be dead soon. That would appear to be the end of it, except there was the titular volcano to contend with and the big boss of the corporation Joe has just left (Lloyd Bridges) shows up at his apartment and makes him an offer. There's a Pacific island which needs a willing sacrifice to jump into their volcano to appease a local god: will Joe help out?
He agrees, having nothing left to lose, and now has a stack of money at his disposal to live like a King as he prepares for his ultimate demise. With his chauffeur (a wise Ossie Davis) guiding him, he is ready for the flight to Los Angeles where he will take a yacht to the island, but along the way meets Meg Ryan again, twice. Ryan had three roles, or three accents and wigs anyway, as she also played the two daughters of the boss, one Angelica, a brittle artist and the other ambitious but thwarted Patricia, who Joe eventually falls in love with. You can see where Shanley was going with this, in that if you think life is not worth living according to this you have to grab any opportunities that may happen along, and recognise them as such to make the most of the wondrous universe we live in, and so forth, which was all very well but did come across as if he had sought inspiration from the least specific self help literature he could find. If you liked the idea of bland encouragement about improving your lot in a fantasy setting, you would like this more than practical folks. Music by Georges Delerue and Peter Gordon.