Lava Comes to La-La Land

Volcano is set in Los Angeles, and for L.A. haters, it could prove a peak experience. You don't even have to hate L.A. to enjoy it -- love/hate will do. That's why the film closes with Randy Newman's mock-anthem "I Love L.A." (which, of course, makes it L.A.'s true anthem).

Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, and in the eyes of many people that makes it the sellout capital of the world. If you think all the ills of the planet can be traced to the stench from the movie, record, and television industries, L.A. is Sin City incarnate. The natural disasters -- the mudslides and fires and earthquakes -- are regarded as divine retribution for all those sky-high salaries and kidney-shape swimming pools and hot-tub orgies and sleek limos that stretch to the smog-rimmed horizon.

The unnatural disasters, such as the riots and free-for-all gang warfare and celebrity murders, are perceived as retribution too; it's all part of the Armageddon-in-progress that is L.A. It's a great place to be a hater; but of course, a real hater can't be truly happy for long inveighing only against the show-biz factories. So for extra target practice there exist the waves of Latin and Asian immigrants impertinent enough to want to make a better life for themselves in L.A. The city is probably the best place to be a racist in America -- there are so many races to target. (If you look beyond the quality-of-life/back-to-the-soil rhetoric, a lot of the ongoing exodus from L.A. by middle-aged professionals is just a fancy form of white flight.)

With all this bile going for it, is it any wonder a lot of people want to see L.A. bite it big time?

Volcano is a lot better than John Carpenter's recent I-Hate-L.A. opus Escape from L.A., which exploited the hell out of the city's racial antagonisms in the guise of a punk cartoon. And it's way more fun than this year's other volcano movie, Dante's Peak. Even though that movie takes place in the rustic high country of Washington (actually filmed in Idaho), I still count it an L.A.-bashing job. After all, isn't its sylvan setting just the kind of back-to-nature paradise Angelenos yearn to flee to? Dante's Peak was humorless -- the only suspense was in waiting for Pierce Brosnan to lose his porcelain cool -- and yet it was a great inadvertent joke on L.A. Its message to Angelenos on the move was, Even if you make it to paradise, you'll get zapped. The magma will get you.

Volcano, starring Tommy Lee Jones as L.A.'s Emergency Management Control honcho and Anne Heche as a smarty-pants volcanologist, really piles on the magma. It rolls down Wilshire Boulevard like an enormous melted cheese sandwich; it even clogs the arteries of the underground Metro Rail. It's all kind of pretty, really; even the volcanic fireballs that thump the air like SCUD missiles have a party-time panache. Earthquake movies aren't very photogenic, but volcano movies -- a subspecies of the earthquake genre -- are spangled and showoffy. It's as if even the molten forces of nature wanted to get into show biz. That's how corrupting L.A. can be.

A sense of humor can go an unconscionably long way in a disaster movie. In Volcano the filmmakers and the audience are in on the same joke. L.A. is once again the target of divine retribution -- ain't it wonderful? The film's hate-L.A. jokes aren't mean and vindictive, though. This is, after all, an anti-L.A. movie made by Hollywood insiders. They have a high old time torching their own playground, and they'll probably make a fortune in the process.

There's an affectionate knowingness to the knocks in this movie -- like the shot of the Metro Rail conductor reading the book Writing Screenplays That Sell. Actual L.A. TV newscasters turn up, and their faces are familiar from the city's real-life circuses. Whether it's O.J. or Mount Wilshire erupting, it's nice to know these guys are on the case. In L.A. newscasters use their on-air assignments as audition tapes for movie work. The folks who made Volcano are only too glad to oblige.

The jokes in Volcano aren't wedged into the action as an afterthought. They're part of the film's texture, and you keep waiting for them. Watching this film is a little bit like getting mauled and tickled at the same time. The filmmakers have given the whole shebang a hefty levity, and that's not easy to accomplish in a full-scale disaster movie.

The cast helps. Heche's role is familiar, but she spouts her smart-ass lines as if she's really smart. As an emergency management aide, Don Cheadle is like a one-man jive-ass Greek chorus; looking at the lava, he says, "Even Moses couldn't reroute this shit." Cheadle is such an original actor that you forget what a bummer his role could have been if played straight. His taunting, insinuating wit must act as a kind of inner metronome; his comic rhythms -- velvety, but with a snap -- are unlike any other actor's. As in Devil in a Blue Dress, Cheadle is funny in ways that catch you off-guard. Maybe he's caught off-guard too -- he shares with us his delight in his own delight.

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