Over/Under is a weekly column in which we even the odds between two films that have, perhaps unfairly, developed very disparate legacies over the passing of time.
This week finds us looking for inspiration in the realm of the romantic comedy. Or, more specifically, we’re looking at one of the best-regarded romantic comedies of the last couple decades in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, and one that’s oft forgotten and sometimes derided in 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano.
What do they have in common?
The most obvious correlation is that they both star Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as their leads. Hanks and Ryan have teamed together several times now, and often with great success, but Joe Versus the Volcano is the part of their story that usually gets left out of the discussion. When You’ve Got Mail came out in 1998 it was touted as the big reteaming of Hanks and Ryan after Sleepless in Seattle, but nary a mention of Joe was made, and probably with good reason. After John Patrick Shanley made a name for himself in the film world by penning the award winning script for Moonstruck, his debut as a director was Joe Versus the Volcano, which wasn’t well received. Shanley wouldn’t direct another film until 2008’s Doubt, where he had better luck
The other similarity between these films is that they both present us with romances that exist in worlds more fairytale than our own. A lot of what happens to Hanks and Ryan’s characters in these movies is determined by fate and destiny. People don’t grow together in these worlds, they were meant to be together. Consequently, the stories we’re told take on a bit of a sugary unreality that some filmgoers can find off putting. But, in this case, the negative reactions seem to get thrown at Joe alone, as Sleepless is seen as one of the most successful and beloved romantic comedies of all time.
Why is Sleepless in Seattle overrated?
The very first thing that Sleepless in Seattle gives us is a version of “As Time Goes By” playing over the title card. That song is so closely tied in cinematic memory with Casablanca that it’s nearly impossible to play it in a film without invoking the presence of Bogart. Couple that with the fact that a large part of Sleepless’ plot exists as reference to the Cary Grant-starring film An Affair to Remember, and Sleepless starts to look like it’s relying on a nostalgic response to past classics in order to keep its audience from recognizing how clichéd and formulaic the plot is. This isn’t the main reason it’s overrated though; the main reason is that it gives Meg Ryan nothing to do other than act like a psychotic weirdo.
While Hanks’ half of the film, which mostly focuses on his relationship with his young son after the death of his wife, is engaging and well handled, Ryan gets saddled with a significantly less interesting struggle with a fiancé who is a nice guy, but not quite right for her. When the focus of the film is on Hanks and his son, it’s fully engaging, especially since the young actor Ross Malinger is able to adequately trade jokey dialogue with a master of the trade in Tom Hanks. But when the focus was on Ryan, the silly hoops her character has to jump through to get her where the screenwriter needs her to be by the end of the film grow tedious. Her character ends up not only being something of a neurotic stalker, but she manages to dump a perfectly nice man for no reason, and it effectively made her contemptible. Every time I was watching Ryan I was wishing that the focus would just go back to Hanks, and that’s not a fair situation to put such a talented actress in. Not to mention the fact that the reason these Hanks and Ryan movies are notable is the chemistry between the two actors, yet Sleepless doesn’t allow them to share more than a moment’s worth of screen time, and right at the very end. What gives?
Why is Joe Versus the Volcano Underpraised?
One of the biggest reasons Joe Versus the Volcano deserves to be mentioned in at least the same breath as Sleepless in Seattle is that it embraces the fairytale nature of its story and does something with it. Sleepless, for all effects and purposes, exists in the same world that we do. And yet it deals in matters of fate and happenstance that require its characters to look like irrational mental patients in order to keep up with the plot. Joe, conversely, takes place in a world slightly off kilter and not exactly like our own. This allows Shanley to experiment visually with things like set design and color palette in order to take advantage of the things film can do better than other mediums. When the movie opens and Joe is working a factory job, the surroundings are more grimy and industrial than any that really exist. The image is gray and washed out, creating a world that makes you sad and desperate deep down in your bones. And then, once Joe gets out of his job and goes out on a date, suddenly the image is rich and warm, deep with shadows and reds. Joe traverses a world with whimsical, multi-colored city lights, Orange Soda drinking tribal people, Superconductors that run on Boobaroo, and cheesy special effects that are almost childish in their execution. Nora Ephron and her collaborators shoot Sleepless in Seattle in a utilitarian manner. Their camera work is fine, but Shanley and his crew are virtuosos. In the beginning of the film they play with the framing of the image to give you a sense of isolation, later on they change it completely to let a feeling of closeness creep in. Just the act of looking at Joe is more fun than anything Sleepless has to offer.
That problem Sleepless has with not giving you scenes with Hanks and Ryan together? Joe doesn’t just fix it; it gives you more Hanks and Ryan interaction that you can shake a stick (A stick? What does that cliché even mean?) at. Ryan plays three different characters here, who all interact with Hanks’s Joe in different ways over the course of the film. Gone is the problem of a good actress just being forced to act like a flibbertigibbet for the whole film. Here Ryan gets to play one of those, and also show off as two completely different characters as well. Instead of Hanks being mopey the entire film and then maybe finding salvation in the end, here he plays a character that grows and changes. He goes from downtrodden and put upon, to slowly coming alive, and then finally to coming into his own. And throughout the whole thing he’s acting opposite a Meg Ryan wearing wigs and speaking in goofy voices. Better put on safety goggles, because the chemistry is on display.
Evening the Odds
Joe Versus the Volcano is a stupendously original movie that doesn’t fit into any mold and remains a visually dense and comedic journey all the way through. It takes two of the best actors of their generation in Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and gives them a platform to show what they’re really capable of. Sleepless in Seattle is just notable because Tom Hanks manages to elevate a chick movie to higher heights than they usually reach.
Yeah, his recent inability to elevate Larry Crowne to watchable status shows that he’s not a God, and Sleepless must have something else working for it on some level; but nothing so compelling that I think it deserves to be looked back at as a beloved, modern classic.