Two movies of angst and discovery

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.

Romantic comedies

“Boys only want pork if it’s kosher” is a mishearing of a line from a Taylor Swift song. It makes just as much sense as the real line, though. We live in a culture that is confused and misinformed about love. For generations, poems, books, songs, and movies have distorted the meaning of love. No wonder our culture is trying to redefine marriage, when we cannot distinguish true love from infatuation, romance, or just plain selfishness.

That said, I actually enjoy watching romantic comedies. The late Nora Ephron is one of my favorite movie-makers in the genre, largely because her distortions of love are so over-the-top that they practically serve as satires rather than portrayals of romance. I must add, though, that I would not want my children to watch her movies without a clear warning that true love is nothing like what they will see in Ephron’s movies.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It follows two shallow and shabby characters through several years of their lives. The wit of Billy Crystal and the charm of Meg Ryan make the movie entertaining. The most telling quote from the movie comes from the wedding reception of Jess and Marie. Harry and Sally had tried to arrange a blind date in which Harry was matched with Sally’s best friend Marie, and Sally is matched with Harry’s best friend, Jess. Instead, the two best friends become attracted to each other, ignoring Harry and Sally. At the reception, Jess, the groom offers this toast: “To Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had found either of them remotely attractive we would not be here today.” As in all Nora Ephron’s movies, the main characters practice serial fornication without shame, although Sally is affronted by Harry’s casual attitude about his behavior. The movie is packed with clever lines and convincing portrayals of the characters. The interviews with married couples between acts of the story are a nice touch, showing diverse ways that a man and a woman can become a couple. As a love story, though, the movie is sadly lacking any other positive portrayals of true love.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was both written and directed by Nora Ephron. Tom Hanks plays a man who was happily and faithfully married, but then his wife dies. Hanks’ portrayal makes Sam likeable and vulnerable, but Sam boasts of fornication with eight different women during his college days, and he seems inclined to return to that lifestyle. Meg Ryan’s Annie is already living with her fiancé, but when she hears Sam’s voice on the radio, she suddenly becomes a stalker who pursues him from across the country and arranges to meet him in New York City on Valentines’ Day (because she and her fiancé will be registering for wedding gifts at the time). Annie’s pursuit of “magic” in a romantic relationship reveals exactly what is wrong with our culture’s understanding of love.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) brings back Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a romantic team. Nora Ephron wrote, directed, and produced this story, in which Ryan’s Kathleen owns and manages a small book store, specializing in children’s books, while Hanks’ Joe Fox is part of a family which owns and runs a large chain of book stores, the kind of chain that puts stores like Kathleen’s out of business. While the two compete professionally, they are also becoming friends in anonymous email exchanges. (At the same time, they are both living with partners to whom they are not married.) In the latter part of the movie, after Joe has realized that his email partner and business competitor are the same person (and after her shop has closed), he begins a crafty and manipulative pursuit of Kathleen which leads to the expected happy ending. If one of my daughters became involved with a man like Joe Fox, I would urge her to run the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

More recent movies from Nora Ephron include Hanging Up (2000) which she wrote and produced (and which again stars Meg Ryan), and Julie & Julia (2009) which Ephron wrote, directed, and produced. In both movies, the romance in the plot takes second place to other happenings. Hanging Up is about three daughters and their relationship with their aging father. It speaks on several levels about life and death, love and families, and our dependence upon technology. Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams, is based on a true story of a woman who chooses to blog about her attempt to cook every recipe from a book by Julia Child (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in one year. Both movies benefit from the same clever dialogue and convincing acting as in the other three I have mentioned.

I enjoy Nora Ephron’s movies for their cleverness. I also enjoy the way she portrays holidays with genuine affection for their flavor. Harry and Sally’s Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve revelation, Sam and Annie’s meeting on Valentines’ Day at the top of the Empire State building, and Kathleen and Joe’s contrasting celebrations of Thanksgiving (both involving singing) are all nice touches in each movie. In fact, the friendships depicted in all of these movies are frequently healthier relationships than the romantic relationships at the center of each plot. J.