Abe Vigoda & Joe Versus The Volcano

Actor Abe Vigoda died on Tuesday at the ripe old age of 94. For those of you who watched TV in the mid-70s, you’ll know him as the curmudgeonly, hemorrhoidal Sgt. Philip K. Fish from ABC’s Barney Miller and, later, its short-lived spinoff, Fish:

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For those of you with more cinematic tastes, no doubt you’ll remember Vigoda from The Godfather as trusted Corleone-family capo Salvatore Tessio. That is, until he betrayed Michael to a competing family. (“Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.”):

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Of course, if you’re The Conflicted Film Snob, and you’ve dug your hand a little deeper into cinema’s candy jar, then the Vigoda performance you’ll most cherish is soda-loving Chief Tobi from 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano:

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(Reader pauses to consider whether he or she has seen let alone even heard of the film Joe Versus the Volcano. Determining no, reader then screws up face, mutters, “What the hell’s this clown talking about?”)

I’m talking, dear reader, about John Patrick Shanley‘s bizarrely entertaining directorial debut, another of those cult movies I stumbled across watching late-night HBO in college.

Don’t know Shanley from a hole in the wall? Well, he’s the screenwriter who won an Oscar for 1987’s Moonstruck. And later went on to write the play Doubt, which won both the Tony and the Pulitzer.

Anyway, after his Moonstruck success, he found himself with enough Hollywood clout to push through some very quirky, personal material. Thus Joe Versus the Volcano, which he not only wrote, but also directed. Lucky guy.

A brief synopsis:

Joe (Tom Hanks), a lonely, depressed hypochondriac, works a dreary job at a dreary factory (“Home of the Rectal Probe”) in a dreary city that owes much of its drab production design to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil:

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On one of his many trips to the doctor, he’s told he has a symptomless “brain cloud” that will kill him within months. Emboldened by the prognosis, Joe quits his job.

The next day Joe is approached by a wealthy robber baron (Lloyd Bridges) who offers up the strangest of proposals: in exchange for an unlimited credit card limit, Joe will sail to the Pacific island of Waponi Woo, where he then will jump into its active volcano, thus killing himself.

Why? Well, it seems that the robber baron wants to mine a valuable mineral deposit on the island but the indigenous people won’t allow it until their fire god is appeased with a (voluntary) human sacrifice. And seeing that none of the indigenous want to have anything to do with it, why not Joe? He’s dying anyway, so…

Joe takes the gig. 

Did I mention this is a comedy?

I won’t spoil the rest suffice to say that it involves Meg Ryan playing three characters (this in her cute stage, before she got into plastic surgery and collagen treatments), a laugh-out-loud scene involving a luggage salesman, Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane in native garb and some very poignant observations about life and death and how we spend our limited time here on earth. (It’s not a stretch to say that Shanley’s opinion on this matter is thus: too many of us waste our precious lives working for dreary companies that specialize in screwing people. “Home of the Rectal Probe”…get it?)

How something so uncommercial ever saw the light of day is pretty much a miracle.

Anyway, while it’s not an all-time classic, it’s pretty damn fun. The actors are solid, the script literate, the production values high.

And so, to honor the late Abe Vigoda and movies that take real chances, I humbly entreat you to check it out.

Here’s the trailer and, more importantly, that luggage scene I mentioned earlier:

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