Katya Orlova Versus the Volcano?

Once upon a time, 1990 to be exact, it would have been difficult to say who was the more charismatic couple, Barley Blair and Katya Orlova or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Indeed the charisma quotient went off the index when these cinematic superpowers paired off; not only thawing East-West relations but generating a Krakatoa-like eruption of cinemagic, lunacy, love and laughter.
Joe Versus the Volcano like The Russia House follows in the footsteps of Casablanca, but instead of Soviet spies we get Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in a magnificently goofy film in the vein of Carole Lombard’s Nothing Sacred.
After learning that he has a ‘brain cloud’ and only six months to live, Joe Banks (Hanks) quits his job, and accepts an offer to “live like a king, die like a man” instead of waiting for the inevitable. To fulfil his end of the deal Joe must jump into a volcano on the island of Waponi Woo in order to appease the volcano god.
What follows is an odyssey Homer would have been proud of, which takes our eponymous hero from a shopping spree in Manhattan, to a cruise on a yacht, to a typhoon, to an erupting volcano, along the way meeting a parade of eccentric characters straight out of a 30’s melodrama; three of them played by Meg Ryan.
In The Russia House the mood is distinctly more pragmatic, as Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer bring their charisma to an extremely pleasant espionage drama set in the era of glasnost. Ditching the sophisticated, glamorous world of James Bond, Connery plays a hard drinking British publisher who finds himself entangled in a web of subterfuge involving MI5, the CIA, Soviet scientist Dante and mysterious Russian go-between Katya Orlova.
Connery is imperious as the bedraggled, boozing Barley, creating a touching chemistry with Pfeiffer’s Katya. You could imagine these two sharing a life after the credits roll. As Katya brings meaning to Blair’s waning life for the first time in a long time, the espionage plot becomes a backdrop for their love story.
I see a lot of myself in Connery’s Blair and Hanks’ Joe. I’ve had the years resigned to a life free of happiness. Now I’m just waiting to meet my Katya. Here lies the central conceit that gives this post its title, an ongoing debate that now juxtaposes the “rare quality” of Pfeiffer’s Русская, with the multiplicity of Meg, renewing a man’s joy in life, even as he journeys toward death.
The journey to Joe’s date with destiny fully explores Ryan’s remarkable range as she gets to play all of the women in Banks’ life. From mousey secretary DeDe, to red-headed, heiress Anjelica and finally Patricia, Anjelica’s delectable, soul sick, half-sister, who captains the schooner Tweedledee on the sail to the volcano.
brain-cloudPfeiffer in some ways takes as many chances with her role as Katya. For one thing, she maintains an authentic Russian accent throughout, and though Hanks and Ryan set off palpable fireworks once they set sail together, Michelle, ever the chameleon, would have been equally at home in any of Meg’s three roles.Her Katya is more luminous than the moon that Joe marvels at, with “the class that only nature can bestow.” I’d have happily leapt into a volcano with her.



Filed under Retrospective

16 responses to “Katya Orlova Versus the Volcano?

  1. I’ve never seen Joe Versus the Volcano, really must get around to it one of these days. It’s been years since I last checked out The Russia House.

  2. Great post 🙂 Meg Ryan’s performance in Joe Versus the Volcano is fantastic and in terms of greatness, is worthy of comparison to Alec Guinness multiple roles in Robert Hamer’s black comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and Peter Sellers not only in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), but also in Jack Arnold’s British satirical comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959). I love how you chose The Russia House as the contrasting film here. I love that you displayed a picture of Pfeiffer wearing a red sweater because it reminds me of that red jacket she wore in Into the Night (1985). Intriguingly enough, Joe Versus the Volcano and The Russia House came out the same year which was 1990. If Pfeiffer can do accents, which she can, then Ryan can play multiple characters like Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    P.S. I working on my next review and it is another horror film since it is the month of October (Halloween) 🙂

  3. rbtheuncritic

    When I saw this post title I guessed you would have 3 pictures that captured to a T, the three different roles played by Meg Ryan in this uniquely structured film. And of course, you did. I never cease to be impressed with this movie and with the dynamite team of Ryan and Hanks. I would still love to see them re-unite on a project.

  4. Paul! I *just* revisited The Russia House last week! Such a delicate, quiet, lovely film. Pfeiffer is, as you say, more luminous than the moon. Her Katya is a character I’d love to see explored further. She brought so much to the role; it’s a truly mesmerizing performance. A real gem in a career littered with them. The woman is simply remarkable, turning in one tremendous performance after another, film after film, year after year. Long live Michelle!

    I’ve long felt that Meg’s finest performance might just be Joe Vs. The Volcano. I know, I know, it’s almost impossible to declare this, as she’s had a career full of great performances. She is absolutely astounding in this film though, displaying that tremendous versatility which she rarely gets enough credit for possessing. Anjelica never fails to make me giggle. I hold that film in a special place in my heart, such a deeply moving, yet never cloying or overly sentimental.

    As always, you really hit at the central themes and truths in the films you’re covering. Bravo!

    BTW, my latest Pfeiffer pfilm is up at the blog this morning. Enjoy!


    • Thank you, you’re pfar too generous!
      We share the same malady. Pfeiffer Pfever, always leaving us wanting more of Michelle once the credits role. In The Russia House she gave Meryl Streep a lesson in accent and Russian-ness and when Connery coaxed a shy smile from Katya, she was like Garbo. Pfeiffer’s smile is a counter-punch: it’s all in the eyes rather than the lips. It gives me goosebumps every time.
      Speaking of smiling, Joe Versus the Volcano never fails to move me in that direction too. I’m so happy you’re a fan, although I shouldn’t be surprised.

  5. We’ve got the Pfever, and the only prescription is more Pfeiffer.

    Yes, yes, yes, her smile is in the eyes, and it never fails to give me goosebumps either. She’s magnificent.

    I’m hoping to reblog this post, if you don’t mind.

  6. Must see “Joe vs the Volcano” again. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember thinking Meg Ryan was superb.

    As for “The Russia House”, that does look intriguing. I bet Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer have fab chemistry.

  7. My goodness Meg Ryan was so cute back in the day!

  8. Paul – just seen the Russia House, loved it and like you so saw them as a couple as the credits rolled x Michelle and Sean had lovely chemistry!

  9. Paul – love you to enter this in our then and now blogathon, have you reviewed these ladies in their appearances 20 years before or after these films? Please say yes…


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