As an actor who's never shied away from admitting that he got lucky in his phenomenal career -- and who's generally considered one of the nicest fellows in show business -- Tom Hanks has still managed to pull down an impressive roster of film roles. As to what the best of those roles would be ... that's bound to be highly debatable, and I'm sure the comments following this post will bear that out.
If one wants to go by Oscar-winning performances, Hanks won back-to-back awards in 1993 and 1994 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. But it can be argued that the first, while a fine performance, was lauded mainly for the "bravery" of playing a gay man, and for the important subject matter. In Gump, it was a measure of the (inexplicable, to someone who dislikes Gump intensely) popularity of that film, and for the Academy's affection for actors who play characters with physical or mental disability.
His savvy for choosing excellent dramatic roles in films like Road to Perdition, The Green Mile and Catch Me If You Can make his sincere work in the big, dumb Dan Brown adaptations palatable, but to really find his "best role," we need to go back to 1990, when Hanks was still considered a comic actor. After a string of hits and semi-hits that included Splash, Bachelor Party, Volunteers, Big and (ahem) Turner & Hooch, Hanks made a still-underappreciated gem of a film called Joe Versus the Volcano.
Directed by playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Doubt), the film is an existential parable with Hanks as a morose hypochodriac who only dicovers his capacity for living after he learns that he's dying. In 1990, Hanks was being lauded as a successor to James Stewart, a likeable everyman with a wry sense of humor. And wryness was key to the tone of Shanley's tale, a ludicrous story of coincidence, fate and foible that predates similar, and vastly more popular, films by the likes of Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers.
Hanks' Joe is a sad sack who slumps into work every day at a grim concern that manufactures medical supplies (Home of the Rectal Probe!) with dripping pipes, zombified co-workers and buzzing, flickering fluorecents straight out of an Asian extreme horror flick. When a doctor (Robert Stack) diagnoses Joe with a fatal "brain cloud," it's less a shock than just one more inevitable step in the slow death of his body and soul -- so when a mysterious billionaire (Lloyd Bridges) offers him a luxury trip to a South Seas island on the condition that Joe sacrifice himself to a volcano in a native ritual, it's the most positive, interesting thing that's happened to him in a long time.
Much was made at the time of the film's release of Meg Ryan playing three characters in the film -- and she's very good, showing more range than you might imagine, given her overall body of work. But Hanks himself is the best he's ever been, playing a man who begins the story engulfed in gloom and misery, eventually losing his nihilism and fully embracing life the closer he comes to giving it up.
The film itself is a masterwork of ironic whimsy, and there's not enough space here to discuss Shanley's brilliant use of a deadpan fairy-tale tone, a broad-ranging color palette that gradually brightens as Joe himself embraces life, or the simply hilarious secondary roles played by Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda and Dan Hedaya. Shanley brings unabashed references to Steven Spielberg, David Lynch and Terry Gilliam to Joe Versus the Volcano, and the film, in turn, appears to have influenced directors like Anderson and The Brothers Bloom director Rian Johnson -- yet it was a box-office flop at the time of its release, a victim, perhaps, of simply being ahead of its time.
Hanks is a workmanlike actor, never flashy or over-the-top, and despite multiple Oscars, somewhat underrated as a true actor. As not-all-that-great as some people (like, say, me) think Cast Away to be, for example, there's no denying that Hanks, in yet another Oscar-winning performance, manages to carry what's almost a one man show with immense success. Even in his pedestrian Da Vinci Code movies, Hanks commits himself fully when he could easily coast his way through each day's work and still have a box office success.
In Joe Versus the Volcano, though, Hanks was still trying to prove himself as more than an affable comic talent, and his performance is as profoundly tragic as it is hilarious. It's a bravura performance in a great film that, for some reason, still gets a bad rap -- and definitely worth checking out on DVD as soon as you get the chance.