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.

Tommy Lee Jones isn't exactly sounding any new depths here, but he gives his stalwart-hero role some recognizably human shadings and some spunk. In a big special-effects movie such as this one, that can make all the difference in the world. Playing Mike Roarke, apparently the only guy in L.A. who knows what to do when the plates shift and the magma mounts, he's a whirling dervish of counterattacks. It's Mike versus the Volcano.

Still, the film saddles him with one of those heart-tugging subplots in which he must finally rescue his daughter (Gaby Hoffmann) from the collapsing Beverly Center mall as she attempts to save an errant toddler. Volcano may be smart, but it's far from shameless. The sequence where Mike sprints to his daughter's aid is too flat-out melodramatic; the crosscutting is as wham-bam as anything in Eisenstein. The scene is exciting all right, but too square-jawed for this movie at its best. What you take away from the film aren't its last-minute-rescue extravaganzas but the little human touches and Cheadle and the terrific lava effects and the jibes -- like the exchange between two rescue workers as they retrieve from the flame-engulfed L.A. County Museum of Art a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Perhaps I'm asking too much from this kind of film. But Volcano is just off-center and squiggly enough to make you wish the filmmakers had jettisoned the usual disaster-movie plot mechanics and gotten really nasty-funky. (This is precisely what Tim Burton did in Mars Attacks! and, judging from the response of most critics, you'd think he'd committed a crime on the order of colorizing Citizen Kane.) It's still the wittiest entry in the trash-L.A. genre. Director Mick Jackson made his valentine to Los Angeles with the 1991 Steve Martin comedy L.A. Story, which was such a sweet little picture that he probably thought his next greeting card should be more appropriate for Halloween.

Jackson's a Brit, and even though he now lives in L.A., he must still see the city as a bemused outsider. That bemusement serves him equally well whether he's torching the town or smothering it with wet kisses. Either way, L.A. is no more real to him than a theme park. That's how he's able to send it up with such impunity.

But Jackson doesn't take our love/hate L.A. fantasies to the max. His theme park has too many themes. He balances the good jokes with dreary stuff about an emergency-room physician (Jacqueline Kim) risking her own life to save others. There's a why-can't-we-all-just-get-along section featuring a racist white cop who handcuffs a black brother until he realizes four hands are better than two when it comes to stopping Mr. Lava. The volcano seals up their racial divide. And the lava never flows into the areas we'd like it to go -- like, say, Beverly Hills or Malibu or Bel-Air. The target corridor seems to have been chosen for its proximity to the La Brea tar pits, but primordial ooze isn't as funny as the ooze of the rich and fatuous.

As bubble-icious as the lava is in Volcano, the filmmakers end up giving it short shrift. The triumph of man over magma is depicted with the kind of high-five hoopla that makes us think we're watching an ESPN special. And the final shot of L.A.'s very own volcano -- which should be both hilarious and terrifying -- is barely a blip on the screen before the credits encroach.

Yet you still walk out of the film in a strangely mellow mood. There's a lot of bile fueling the L.A.-disaster-movie genre, but in Volcano the bile doesn't eat away at the fun. What the filmmakers are saying is, Yes, maybe Los Angeles should blow sky-high, but we'll sure miss having it around. Probably most of us in the audience feel the same way.

Written by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray; directed by Mick Jackson; with Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffmann, and Keith David.


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