NEW YORK — I ADMIT it: I was a little late seeing ``Joe Versus the Volcano,'' which played in my local multiplexes for several days before I finally caught up with it. But who'd be in a hurry to see a picture with that ridiculous title? It sounds like an adventure the Ninja Turtles might have rejected. Pardon me, but I have art films on my schedule. This one'll have to wait.
The joke, however, turns out to be on me. ``Joe Versus the Volcano'' is a terrific movie in all kinds of ways - except the title, of course. It's a strange movie, sometimes a little unsettling. But it's full of surprises; it's wonderful to look at; and it has the craziest moods of any picture in ages. In fact, it's my favorite American movie so far this year, and I'm hurrying to spread the news - since some critics positively hated it, and it might not be in those multiplexes as long as it deserves to be.
The hero is (you guessed it) Joe, and he's as ordinary as his name: a dull guy with a boring life and little hope of a more exciting future. His worst problem is that he hates his job. But instead of regarding this as an interesting challenge, he just figures he has to earn a living somehow, and what right does a person have to be happy?
Then some really bad news drops on his head. A doctor tells him he only has a few months to live, and even though he feels great, he starts preparing for the end. Just at this moment, he gets the weirdest job offer of all time: There's a South Pacific island that needs a volunteer to jump into a volcano and appease the volcano god that lives there. Joe hasn't got long to live anyway, so why not take a free cruise to the exotic South Seas, and go out in style? He begins his odyssey with shopping in Manhattan and a stopover in Los Angeles, and then he's sailing toward the horizon in a rich man's yacht with a strange destiny - and, believe it or not, a happy ending - lying in wait.
As you've guessed, this is not a realistic story. The beginning, full of comically exaggerated bleakness, could have been borrowed from ``Eraserhead'' or one of David Lynch's other dark parables. The picture is a fairy tale, and the farther it goes, the more strange and whimsical it becomes.
By the last few scenes, nothing is even slightly real anymore; yet you never stop liking the characters and caring about what's happening to them. I think this fantastic quality is what turned a lot of reviewers off. They like fantasy when it's obvious and flashy, `a la Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, but when it's offbeat and dreamlike it makes them uncomfortable. (Mr. Spielberg served as an executive producer of the film, incidentally, but declined to put his customary ``Steven Spielberg presents'' above the title. Evidently the picture made him uncomfortable, too.)
I'm not saying ``Joe Versus the Volcano'' is a masterpiece - just that it's amiable and unpredictable and has a lot of delightful performances. Tom Hanks is likably low-key as Joe, and Meg Ryan is superb in three different roles, each of them a gem.
``Joe Versus the Volcano'' was written by John Patrick Shanley, whose earlier films include ``Moonstruck'' and ``Five Corners,'' one of the most underrated pictures of the past few years. He also makes his first try as a director in ``Joe,'' coming up with all sorts of colorful things to show and tell. Give it a try. And if you find any more undiscovered treats I've been putting off too long, let me know, will you?