Last week, I delved into how Flynn Carsen from the first ‘The Librarian’ TV movie, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, fits the Liberated Librarian mold. This week, I take a look at another Liberated Librarian, the title character in the 1990 screwball comedy and cult classic, Joe Versus the Volcano.
The basic plot? Joe Banks, played by Tom Hanks, is stuck in a thankless job, and after learning he has only weeks to live, he embarks on an adventure to sacrifice himself in an island volcano. As you do.
The title cards start out fairy-tale style: “Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe… who had a very lousy job…” And what is his job?! A librarian! (Sigh.)
Hapless Joe steps into a puddle getting out of his car and on his way to a factory-like building, and he raises his arms to heaven as if to send up a plea to save him from his hell. And how does he describe how he feels working in his workplace?
~ “Losing my soul” ~ “I feel kind of tired” ~ “I’m not feeling very good” ~
His uncaring boss, Mr. Waturi, played by Dan Hedaya, is unimpressed and suggests he should be grateful. After all, he “put you [Joe] in charge of the entire advertising library.” (Joe has worked there the past four and a half years.)
Joe’s response: “Ah, you mean this room.“
As Joe — and the audience — look around, we are met with a depressing visage of a sterile room with blocky desks, screened windows, file cabinets, flickering fluorescent lighting, and half-empty steel bookshelves. Yep, that is the entire advertising library.
Joe obviously feels no control over his job, and he is told he is “not competent” and “inflexible.”
Joe then goes to the doctor. As if he weren’t depressed enough, that’s when the doctor lays out the bad news — and the movie’s plot — by telling him that he has an incurable “brain cloud” and has only a few months to live. His advice? “You have some life left. Live it well.“
When Joe goes back to the library, his boss tells him that he’ll “be easy to replace,” which makes Joe finally snap and stand up to his boss. “I’ve been too chicken-shit to live my life.“
As he quits his job, he finally asks a female co-worker out (one of many roles played by Meg Ryan!), and she says, “Wow, what a change.“
The liberation has begun!
A businessman, Samuel Graynamore, played by Lloyd Bridges, then offers Joe a chance for an adventure during his final days — to throw himself into a volcano as a human sacrifice. (Why? Because PLOT.) As he puts it — and true to the Liberated Librarian plot arc — “Try to see the hero in there.“
Joe then has dinner with one of Graynamore’s daughters, Angelica (another one of Meg Ryan’s roles). Their conversation over dinner contains perhaps the most quietly damning insult to the librarian profession:
Angelica: So what did you do before you signed on with Daddy?
Joe: I was an advertising librarian for a medical supply company.
Angelica: Oh. I have no response to that.
And Angelica isn’t the only one slinging out insults to Joe. He does it to himself! “I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself, I get bored out of my mind.“
So off Joe goes to seek adventure, letting loose (performing a silly dance atop of a steamer trunk floating in the Pacific Ocean) and releasing his inner brave soul (“Take me to the volcano!“)
As he faces the volcano and almost-certain death, he proclaims that “I have wasted my entire life” and “My whole life, I’ve been a victim, I’ve been a dupe, a pawn.” But no longer! In the end, he faces his own fears, alongside Patricia (Meg Ryan again!), and becomes truly liberated.
Everyman Joe Banks, therefore, also fits the Liberated Librarian character type quite well:
- Initially similar to the the Male Librarian as a Failure — but eventually breaks free
- Needs outside force or action to instigate “liberation” (in this case, the medical diagnosis that he has only weeks to live)
- Younger in age, late twenties (there’s time to redeem himself!)
- Becomes more masculine and brave after “liberation”
- His “liberation” is the main plot arc of the film
How Joe Banks differs from, say, Flynn Carsen from ‘The Librarian’ TV movies — who is liberated through actually becoming a librarian — is that Joe is first seen as a failure in part because of being trapped in a “lousy job,” in this case a advertising librarian for a medical supply company. Being a librarian equals being a failure in his life. It is only by quitting and embarking on this adventure does he become liberated. Therefore, Joe Versus the Volcano joins the Class I category, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, and the librarian’s occupation serves as catalyst to the plot.
Have you seen the cult classic Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)? Please leave a comment and let me know!
- Joe Versus the Volcano. Dir. John Patrick Shanley. Perf. Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack. Warner Bros., 1990.