American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Gradually during the opening scenes of "Joe Versus the Volcano," my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not "Joe Versus the Volcano." It is not an entirely successful movie, but it is new and fresh and not shy of taking chances. And the dialogue in it is actually worth listening to, because it is written with wit and romance.
The movie announces its individuality in its opening shot, which is of a loathsome factory -- a vast block of ugliness set down in the middle of a field of mud. Into this factory every morning trudge the broken spirits and unhealthy bodies of its employees, among them the ashen-faced Joe (Tom Hanks), who has felt sick for years and believes that the buzzing fluorescent tubes above his desk may be driving him mad.
The factory is a triumph of production design (by Bo Welch, who also designed "Beetlejuice"). It is a reminder that most movies these days are rigidly realistic in their settings, as if a law had been passed against flights of fancy like this factory that squats obscenely in the center of the screen. The entire movie breaks that law and allows fantasy back into the movies again. Like “Metropolis” (1927), "The Wizard of Oz," "Ghostbusters" or "Batman," this movie isn't content to photograph the existing world -- it goes to the trouble of creating its own.
In the factory, Joe hunches in his little corner, quailing at the attacks of his boorish boss (Dan Hedaya) and hardly daring a peek at the office secretary (Meg Ryan), whose huge typewriter seems ready to crush her. He hates his job. Hates, hates, hates it. He barely has the strength to crawl out to a doctor's appointment, where he learns that a Brain Cloud is spreading between the hemispheres of his brain.