Two movies from the early 1990s tell contrasting stories of men who have reached the end of their respective ropes. One of them, “Falling Down,” stars Michael Douglas as William Foster; the other, “Joe Vs. the Volcano,” stars Tom Hanks as Joe Banks.
“Falling Down,” made in 1993, stars with the main character sitting in his car, trapped in traffic somewhere in Los Angeles County. After trying to swat an annoying fly with a rolled-up magazine, Foster abandons his car and sets out on foot, announcing that he is “going home.” As the movie progresses, we learn that Foster is a veteran of the Vietnam War, that he has worked until recently in the defense industry but has lost his job, that he is divorced and his ex-wife is afraid of him and has a restraining order against him, and that this day is his daughter’s birthday and he wants to give her a gift. Along the way, Foster confronts various annoyances of modern life: overpriced merchandise in a convenience store, threatening young men in a gang-run barrio, a fast-food place which refuses to serve breakfast food even one minute past 11:30 a.m., deceitful panhandlers in a city park, and the like. Foster begins the day armed only with an attitude, but in each confrontation he gains additional weapons: first a club made from a baseball bat, then a pocket-knife, then a canvas bag filled with guns including automatic rifles. Meanwhile, his adventures come to the attention of a police officer on the verge of retirement, working his last day at the precinct office. This officer begins tracking Foster, learning who he is, and sensing the danger he represents. Both men are frustrated with their lives. Both men can imagine something better, although neither has a clue about how to achieve that improvement. The movie is clearly aims for their confrontation—symbolically, on a pier where land ends and ocean begins.
“Joe Vs. the Volcano” starts with a man working in a dismal job for a medical supplies company. His discomfort with life provokes physical symptoms which have sent him to a series of doctors. One doctor diagnoses a brain cloud, an ailment which will claim the life of Joe Banks in a few months without any overt symptoms during the intervening time. After Joe quits his job, he is visited by a wealthy entrepreneur who needs a hero. He needs a chemical that is found only on one island in the Pacific Ocean, but the primitive islanders will only permit mining for that mineral if the rich man’s company can procure a man willing to jump into an active volcano to appease the angry god dwelling in said volcano. Having nothing to lose, Joe accepts the mission. He is given a credit card with no spending limit and goes out on the town to remake himself in one day. Then he flies across the country, is welcomed onto the rich man’s yacht, and with the crew of the yacht (including the rich man’s daughter), travels toward the volcano.
Both movies feature a man living in the modern world with despair. Their lives are empty; they have no hope. Both movies use travel as a metaphor for life. The men move from setting to setting, encountering various people along the way, picking up pieces of equipment that will serve them on their journey. Both men inhabit a world that makes little sense, a world in which random things happen for no purpose, a world in which their own role and purpose seems ambiguous and undefined. Foster’s ex-wife is played by the lovely Barbara Hershey; Joe’s female counterpart is portrayed by a young Meg Ryan, who appears as three characters—a darkhaired coworker in the beginning scenes, a red-headed artist (also a daughter of the rich man) in California, and finally the blonde daughter of the rich man on the yacht. In both movies, the main characters survive a near-death experience during their journeys: Bill Foster is threatened by the neo-Nazi owner of a pawn shop he visits, and Joe Banks survives the sinking of the yacht. Both men must finally deal with their mortality at the end of their respective journeys—Bill Foster on the pier, and Joe Banks at the brink of the volcano.
“Joe Vs. the Volcano” is a comedy; “Falling Down” is a tension-filled drama. Yet both movies portray the existential angst of life in the modern world. Both movies confront the viewer with a man like most of us, a man doing his best in the world, a man who seems to have the deck of life’s game stacked against him. Both portray uncommon reactions to the pressure of life, in each case a journey, but one with comic overtones and the other with grim reality. Both movies use the journey as a symbol of life, how people move from experience to experience, traveling a road that can only end with the finality of death.
King Solomon wrote that all of life is “vanity.” Even acquiring worldly wealth, political power, knowledge and understanding of the world, and access to every pleasure is not enough. Solomon suggests that to eat, drink, and find pleasure in one’s job is the best anyone can expect in this world. But even the effort to “eat, drink, and be merry” is not enough. Heavenly treasures remain the only satisfying remedy for the emptiness and vanity of all earthly accomplishments and rewards. J.