Joe Versus The Volcano
Scenic RoutesIn Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.  

When I first stumbled onto Reddit a few years ago and created an account, I did what most people do: customized the site according to my interests. Everyone starts out subscribed to a few dozen default topics, or subreddits (it was only 20 or so back then and seems to have doubled since)—mostly sweeping, popular categories like movies, politics, music, etc. I dropped some of those I didn’t much care about (notably r/gaming, since I haven’t played video games regularly since the Atari 2600), added a few others that I quickly dug up (r/poker, r/colorblind), and that was that. Every so often, though, I find myself diving down the rabbit hole (Reddit hole?) of insanely specific subreddits. Literally hundreds of thousands have been created, and while the vast majority are inactive, there are actual communities that hang out to discuss and share, for example, pictures of cats sitting with their paws tucked underneath them so that they resemble a loaf of bread. Or details about the contents of a safe or storage unit someone has recently discovered. Or… the letter ‘g,’ for some reason. In moments of boredom, I’ll click the site’s “random” button and confirm yet again that nothing on Earth is too dull or obscure to have enthusiasts.

That sort of intense passion for the mundane figures in what is quite possibly my single favorite movie scene of all time, which I’ve somehow never previously thought to write about for this column. Joe Versus The Volcano holds a special place in my heart, largely because it’s the only film that gives free rein to writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s uniquely absurdist comic sensibility. (The only other feature Shanley has directed, 2008’s Doubt, is anything but funny.) Its goofy plot has the title character, played by Tom Hanks, discovering that he’s terminally ill and agreeing to travel to a tiny Pacific island; there, he’ll sacrifice himself by jumping into an active volcano, ostensibly appeasing the gods who rule the island’s inhabitants. The tycoon who persuades him to go gives him a lot of money, so that he can splurge on the good life during his final days. Plus, Joe will need to buy some supplies for the trip, which he’s making by yacht. In particular, he will require luggage. How does one make a luggage-buying scene unforgettable? Here’s how:

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Now, granted, this guy is a luggage salesman. It’s in his financial interest to convey expertise. But that’s not how Shanley writes the scene, and it’s certainly not how he directs the actor, Barry McGovern, to play the scene. When the salesman tells Joe at the outset that luggage is the central preoccupation of his life, he sounds like he genuinely means it. His tone and intensity convey the impression that he chose this livelihood due to a pre-existing love for suitcases and all things related to suitcases. This instantly lends bizarre energy to what would otherwise amount to a rather humdrum bit of exposition. (The four steamer trunks Joe buys here wind up playing a key role in the movie’s climax.) I’m not sure it’s quite accurate to call this brief exchange hilarious—there are only a couple of real laugh lines—but the word “delightful” surely applies. And the delight stems not from jokes, or even from cleverness, but just from the sheer pleasure of watching someone talk about luggage in terms usually reserved for priceless objets d’art. The salesman isn’t even being implicitly ridiculed for his odd passion. He’s part of the film’s vibe.

Much of the credit goes to McGovern, who I’m surprised to discover is from Ireland. Apparently, he works mostly in theater and has won several awards for his one-man Samuel Beckett shows; that may well be how he wound up in Joe Versus The Volcano, since Shanley was a renowned New York playwright before he began writing movies. McGovern’s film and TV résumé is relatively limited, but he’s still working regularly—he even played a small role on Game Of Thrones a couple of years ago. In any case, he manages to pull off a reasonably credible American accent here while simultaneously investing his dialogue with a distinctive cadence that makes even the simplest lines funny. I’ve spent over 25 years now bewildering people (excepting a few friends who are also Joe fans) by responding to banal observations with “Very exciting.” [Dramatic pause.] “As a luggage problem.” What’s truly remarkable here is the way that McGovern, without huffing and puffing, fashions a vivid personality within seconds of his first appearance. This is his only scene in the movie, amounting to less than two minutes of screen time; he uses it so well that I’d wager it’s the performance for which he’s most likely to be remembered, at least by cinephiles.

Give some credit to Hanks, too, though, for being so willing to let a relative unknown upstage him. Not only is he decidedly the straight man throughout, but Shanley also privileges McGovern visually almost from start to finish. The initial two-shot has McGovern in three-quarter profile at left, with Hanks almost in complete profile at right; the composition is balanced somewhat by Hanks being both taller and slightly closer to the camera, but the focus is still on the salesman. The following shot sees McGovern turn and walk toward the camera, stopping in a medium close-up, while Hanks lingers behind, out of focus. Shanley keeps Hanks fuzzy even though he’s the one doing most of the talking; our eyes are directed to the salesman’s keen interest in Joe’s situation. We watch the professional perform some mental calculus. Then it’s back to a two-shot in profile as the salesman shows Joe the premier steamer trunk. Only when Joe says, “I’ll take four of ’em” does Hanks finally get a close-up in this scene. That might not sound like a big deal, but movie stars are notorious for kicking up a fuss when they feel like they’re being marginalized. Hanks willingly cedes the spotlight to McGovern (as well as to other character actors like Dan Hedaya and Ossie Davis elsewhere in the movie) and his generosity makes everyone, including himself, look good.

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The absurdity extends to the set design, too. I don’t imagine there’s an actual luggage store anywhere in New York, or indeed in the world, that resembles this one, with its octagonal layout and museum-style displays. Shanley almost certainly instructed production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, A Little Princess) to make the store look like a church, building to the sublime moment when the salesman opens the doors (which have clouds painted on them!) to reveal the premier steamer trunk, to the accompaniment of a heavenly choir on the soundtrack. Again, as it turns out, this is all setup—the four trunks will essentially serve as a deus ex machina in the final minutes. But there’s no sense at all, in the moment, that you’re watching narrative dominoes being carefully lined up. It’s more as if Shanley had been given, or gave himself, a creative exercise: “Write a scene in which a man buys some suitcases—nothing else whatsoever happens; strictly a sales pitch—and make it interesting.” Very exciting.

As a luggage problem.