Roger Ebert ends his review of Joe Versus the Volcano with a great bit:
What's strongest about the movie is that it does possess a philosophy, an idea about life. The idea is the same contained in "Moonstruck": that at night, in those corners of our minds we deny by day, magical things can happen in the moon shadows. And if they can't, a) they should, and b) we should always in any event act as if they can.
First a note: Roger references Moonstruck because John Patrick Shanley wrote both and directed Joe Versus the Volcano. Second, though, I love especially that last line. That we should always act as if magical things can happen is one of those ideas that so many movies put forth--from the eternal recurrence of Groundhog Day to the hyperrealism of American Psycho, from the time travel of About Time to the deliberate fantasy of Moulin Rouge. And, yes, Moonstruck. Joe Versus the Volcano takes place in a reality where miracles can happen, where desk lamps can foreshadow the the final act--
(notice, Joe's lamp has the Moai-style stone statue but no people; invoking the population drop of Easter Island, while also offering a nice moonlit island, peaceful and serene)
--and all the women in Joe's life can be identical without anyone noticing.
On that note, Vincent Canby at the New York Times says in his review of the film, "Miss Ryan plays with equal distinction the three different women with whom Joe becomes involved, though no point is made by having one actress do the three parts." The three parts Ebert describes as "grungy, waspish and delectable." DeDe, Angelica, and Patricia. The latter two are half-sisters, of course, so their similarities make sense. The question--to counter Canby's assessment and to echo Ebert's about "magical things"--is this: why have one woman play all three parts?
First of all, I had to doublecheck the timing, here. I mean, who was Meg Ryan at the time? I knew Top Gun and Innerspace were previous, but forgot about Armed and Dangerous and wasn't sure if The Presidio or When Harry Met Sally... were before or after Joe Versus the Volcano. Meg Ryan was already one of America's sweethearts by the time this movie came out. So, there was an expectation about the romantic comedy leanings perhaps, an expectation of Patricia Graynamore delayed by the presence of DeDe and Angelica. Two things worth commenting now as the movie passes: 1) DeDe is almost ready to run off with Joe; I mean, as a character, she's ripe for the same escape he has, except she doesn't have the hope of death to drive her to change her life; 2) Graynamore, were it a name said more often in the script, would be far too on-the-nose, but as it is, I like it; it separates the dreary life Joe has been living--including DeDe--from the more colorful world he enters when he gives up one the regular day-to-day; in that, this film is as much an indictment of the bullshit schedules of modern civilization as Groundhog Day is, reminding us, warning us, that offices and time clocks are unnatural appendages we should excise. As Paul Hannam (2008) puts it in The Magic of Groundhog Day, "As an individual, a regular structure is fine if you are happy in your routine. The difficulty arises if you are not happy, if you are not at peace, if you see no magic in everyday life. It is not so much outer repetition but inner repetition--repetitive thought patterns--that create the Groundhog Day Effect" (pp. 7-8). Joe turns that crank, not knowing what gas might be released where, because he is leaving the past behind in a self-indulgent fit of self-destruction, like George Monroe in Life as a House or Johnny Baxter in Snowball Express or Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire not flipping out, or Lester Burnham's letter and blackmail in American Beauty; burn the bridges and move along, because the world is brighter on the other side.
Joe notices DeDe. Of course he notices her. As he tells Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya),
Don't you think I'm aware that there's a woman here? I can smell her like a flower. I can taste her like sugar on my tongue. When I'm 20 feet away, I can hear the fabric of her dress when she moves in her chair. Not that I've done anything about it. I've gone all day, every day, not doing, not saying, not taking the chance...
As a self-conscious, timid romantic, trust me, I've been there. Proximity when you can't take the chance--it's as soul-leeching as the pointless job and the soul-rending fluorescent lights. Later, now that he has had the guts to ask her to dinner, he calls her the "door to the universe." Now, he is really speaking more generally, but consider it more specific; DeDe, Angelica, Patricia--they all serve as Joe's doors to new chapters of his life, new segments of his universe. He asks DeDe (25 minutes in), "Did I ever tell you that the first time that I saw you, I felt like I had seen you before?" At the end of the film, he asks the same thing of Patricia. Three women, three acts. DeDe is at work and in the restaurant. Angelica is in the city at large, the expansion of Joe's dying world. Patricia opens that all up, offers Joe the whole world, the ocean, the island, the moon, and, as she puts it, his "whole life".
Still, the volcano haunts Joe the whole time. It's on his lamp. It's on the exterior wall of the restaurant where he eats with DeDe--a billboard advertises FIRE IN PARADISE. (And there are so many great visuals here; I could spend many a day in this blog breaking them down... The colorful apartment windows, the neon FORTUNE sign, Joe's hats and his changing outfits, the ducks, crooked paths, even the trunks. Not to mention the moon. Shanley loves a good moon, doesn't he?)
Act One belongs to DeDe. Upon hearing that Joe is dying, she flees. She can't spend the night with him because his news raises her defenses; she's in the same boat he has now left behind. He's swimming off into the world but she can't. She's still too scared. She has "the job in the morning." But, Joe has a type. Like anyone would. There's a reason he thinks he had seen DeDe before (and later that he had seen Patricia before). He has seen her, in every woman that he noticed but was too afraid to talk to, every woman he was ever attracted to but never acted on that attraction. Joe is as far from the impulsiveness of Ronny Cammareri as he can be. But, he has a type. And, the details have to change just as he changes. By the time he meets Angelica, he has gone shopping, he has gotten a haircut, he has purchased those premier steamer trunks (and isn't it amazing how the display room makes their introduction like a religious experience?); he is not Joe Banks anymore. He's someone else.
It's roughly half way through the film that Joe meets Angelica, and her name is important. She's an angel come to carry him away from his own dead self, so to speak. He has been reborn. And, he comes to the City of Angels. She pulls him out of reality. Shopping marks a realistic transition, but what about that fade from Angelica's painting to her and Joe sitting in that same spot in the same car? The film has disconnected itself from reality, and now Joe is offering Angelica advice about life. And, while Angelica's place in her life is entirely different from DeDe's, she also is stuck. Differently stuck, but stuck. It's easy to imagine both DeDe and Angelica being inspired by Joe, escaping their respective traps... Except that sort of thing isn't easy at all, is it? Our traps are our traps because we put ourselves into them. Sure, society builds them, and other people are there to keep us inside, but what matters most is our own complicity in our imprisonment. Like Phil Connors, trapped in his life in Pittsburgh but freed in the time loop in the small town of Punxsutawney, Joe Banks must be trapped again on the yacht with Patricia, then on the strapped-together steamer trunks, before he is again small enough to see his place in the universe. To see that there was never really a trap but in his own mind, "the daily grin of endlessly repetitive tasks, mind-numbing encounters with the same people, and meaningless activities and conversations" (Hannam, 2008, p. xix). It takes Phil Connors day after day after day of the same thing to realize that it is never the same thing unless he makes it the same. Rita Hansen is the same person on day one of the time loop as on the last day, but Phil has changed enough to see her differently. DeDe to Angelica to Patricia--this is just a more literal version of that. She is the woman Joe sees everywhere. She is different versions... Or different illusions of the woman he wants. Patricia is the confident version, one who isn't stuck despite spending her time on that yacht. She has the world around her and can go anywhere. She tells Joe,
My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.
Now, I wonder about that coming from her father. We only meet him briefly, but it's hard to imagine that he is one of those awake people, manipulating Joe the way that he does, running businesses he knows nothing about. But, imagine that he said it once upon a time, and Patricia latched onto it, took it to heart. And, sure, she lives off her father just like Angelica does, but she does it differently. She uses his boat to live, she doesn't experience her father's money as the only thing keeping her alive and, at the same time, the prison keeping her from doing something she really wants to do. Patricia clearly lives, and she wants the boat for herself.
Angelica and Patricia share Act Two. (Or, if you don't care about balancing the three acts, or don't mind a four-act structure, then DeDe is Joe's Act One, Angelica his brief Act Two, Patricia his Act Three (and his Act Four, and potentially his Act Five, but we don't get to see that). Plot Point One was Graynamore coming to Joe, hiring him. Graynamore was the storm to upset Joe's life even more than the brain cloud diagnosis did. That diagnosis set Joe free, but the film is not about his freedom, it is about his journey to Waponi Woo and the larger freedom that might come from that. Plot Point Two is not an act of a rich man but an Act of God, as it were. A storm leaves Joe and Patricia without their boat, saved only by those steamer trunks and some bottled water. And then Joe has to face that moon, and face, if not God, his own actual self. "Dear God, whose name I do not know," he says. "Thank you for my life. I forgot how big... Thank you. Thank you for my life." It needn't be taken as suggesting the literal existence and presence of God (anymore than Phil looking up after the Old Man dies in Groundhog Day) but it is a religious experience, Joe's Road to Damascus moment. And, it's a strange sort of poetry. To not feel so small, Joe must be faced with just how small he truly is... Or perhaps, how big he truly is, because we are all infinite and expansive, as big as we choose to be on the inside. "I forgot how big..." He doesn't finish that line. He just lets it hang there. Shanley and Joe letting us interpret it as we see fit, because, of course, this is our movie just as it is their's. Our universe just as it is Joe's. Our world. Our magic.