Favorite Fictional Characters, #215: Joe Banks
I've never been a huge Tom Hanks fan. I don't get what all the fuss is about, frankly. He was fine and all as a goofy comic actor in fare such as Big or Splash or Sleepless in Seattle. But Forrest Gump is an abomination, one of the worst beloved movies ever made, and I never understood the lionization of Hanks as this all-time actor. I certainly don't see him as Dan Brown's Robert Langdon. But I did like him in 1990's Joe vs. the Volcano. Here was a strange little movie with a fun-if-implausible premise, that a man could be convinced he was dying so that he would launch himself into a South Pacific volcano as a human sacrifice. And yet, it works.
It works mainly because Hanks' Joe Banks (a nod to 18th-century British celebrity-sceintist-explorer Joseph Banks, who sailed to Polynesia with James Cook) is so utterly recognizable. The opening scenes, where Joe drags himself into his soul-deadening employment and feels the life leaching out of him under the fickle flicker of a bare light bulb, is painfully familiar to so many of us. This is why he gets up every day? In such conditions, bereft of joy or dreams, a diagnosis of a brain cloud makes total sense. I suspect many of us wonder whether one doesn't reside in our own skulls.
The narrative follows Joe as he encounters Meg Ryan, then still America's Sweetheart, as she flexes her limited range with three roles, the last of which is Patricia, destined to be Joe's soulmate. Their shared adventures and privation crossing the Pacific bring them together, to the point where they jump into the titular volcano together. Naturally they are saved, blown out to sea by a blast of air ahead of the eruption, and live happily ever after. The brain cloud, you see, was an invention, a device to convince Joe to sacrifice himself to preserve the mineral riches of Wapani Woo. The true tragedy is that he was so downtrodden that he believes the quacky diagnosis. The tragedy was that he had allowed himself to become so browbeaten, so uninspired. There's a scene when he is on the raft in the ocean while Patricia lies insensate alongside. Joe is struck by the beauty surrounding him, and for the first time in a very long time, he feels grateful for his life. It is an epiphany that never would have come in the cavern of his factory cubicle. It is an epiphany gossamer and elusive, and one many of us never find at all.