Welcome to the first installment of the newest Pajiba series, Tom Hanks: Very Serious Actor. It was unofficially started months ago with Dustin’s brilliant review of The Money Pit. I just decided to take the idea and run with it. After re-watching The Money Pit, I realized that the Tom Hanks we know now is miles away from the Tom Hanks of the ’80s. Actors evolve, of course, as does nearly every profession. But Hanks presents an unusual case study — he moved from snarky, madcap comic genius to Very Serious Actor — somewhere along the line he stopped making films that were simply fun, and insisted upon having a Message. Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, The Road To Perdition — if he wasn’t dealing with Very Important Issues, he’s cursing us with unfortunate romantic comedies (You’ve Got Mail), or worse, shitty blockbuster adaptations of even shittier novels (The Da Vinci Code). He’s made some wonderful, insightful and interesting movies — it’s just that the sense of fun is missing. Well, I’m here to help us all remember the times when Hanks wasn’t yet a Very Serious Actor. Over the next few weeks, we’ll feature a different review of a classic — or not-so-classic — Hanks comedy from his early years.
We begin with an underappreciated favorite of mine — Volunteers.
Volunteers is a classic ’80s screwball comedy, with a sizable twist thrown into it. Hanks plays Lawrence Bourne the Third, a snotty, smarmy, sleazy, and privileged Yalie who’s never made a responsible decision in his life. After getting up to his neck in gambling debts, he makes a desperate run for it that results in his inadvertently joining the Peace Corps and being sent to Thailand to help an impoverished village build a bridge that will supposedly help lead them into the 20th century and save them from a lifetime of being ignorant mud-dwellers. Along the way, he meets and woos the idealistic Beth Wexler (played by future wife Rita Wilson), as well as John Candy in a brilliantly annoying performance as Tom Tuttle from Tacoma, a bright-eyed gung-ho go-getter who is nothing but slogans and grinning moron, a constant thorn in Lawrence’s side. The plot becomes a quagmire as a three-way conflict involving Chung Mee, the local opium warlord (Ernest Harada), the Chinese Red Army led by General Souvanna (Clyde Kusatsu), and the CIA develops, each with their own selfish reasons for wanting the bridge built.
It’s a plot of lunacy all around, with ridiculous nods to films like Bridge Over The River Kwai and Apocalypse Now mixed into its psychotic brew. Directed by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (yikes!)), it’s a dizzying affair, full of horrendously hilarious stereotyping and scathing humor that’s breathtaking to behold. Hanks is a bloody genius in it — he plays Lawrence with a combination of blue-blooded entitlement and obnoxious cleverness that, while unbelievably offensive, is yet somehow endearing. The story is a mess, an idiot-filled cauldron boiling itself to the brink of stupidity. But you know what? Fuck it — it’s also funny as hell. It uses every conceivable Asian stereotype — kickboxing, sumo wrestlers, tigers, huts, accents, ridiculous names — hell, Gedde Watanabe has a brilliant turn as the Hanks’ sidekick/conscience, At Toon. There are small penis jokes, and Chung Mee lives in a palace that’s best described as Angkor Wat meets the Bellagio on amphetamines. Chung Mee speaks in cryptic, circular and nonsensically obtuse sentences (“We must all do what we must do, for if we do not, then what we must do does not get done”), and the cast staggers through bizarro banter like this:
Chung Mee: Opium is my business. The bridge mean more traffic. More traffic mean more money. More money mean more power.
Lawrence: Yeah, well, before I commit any of that to memory, would there be anything in this for me?
Chung Mee: Speed is important in business. Time is money.
Lawrence: You said opium was money.
Chung Mee: Money is money.
Lawrence : Well then, what is time again?
It would be offensive as hell (OK, it kind of is anyway), if not for the fact that pretty much every other group involved is brutally satirized as well. Lawrence’s family, with its stuffy, staid patriarch played to perfection by the late, great George Plimpton, is the picture of grating east coast aristocracy, complete with bowties and clenched jaw affectations. Tuttle is a clumsy stab at middle American obliviousness, while Beth playfully tackles the Long Island Jewess. The American army is played as warmongering, imperialist morons. The Peace Corps itself has a few ripe tomatoes tossed in its face, portrayed as a condescending, ignorant group of do-gooders who sometimes, in their quest to save the poor brown people, do more harm than good.
So it’s not just in spite of its stereotypes, it’s because of them, that Volunteers works. And of course, Hanks owns the role of Lawrence Bourne III. He’s a smug, indolent jackass who part of you wants to punch in the balls … but part of you also wants to get hammered with him and have a ball doing it. He’s a shameless lout who, of course, learns valuable lessons by the end of the film, but you’ll certainly enjoy watching him along the way. The dialogue is ripe with the kind of zingers that Hanks was famous for back in the day — wry, brimming with sarcasm, and full of a slick mixture of insolent insouciance that is thoroughly enjoyable.
It’s one of cinema’s great transformations, really — Hanks is renowned these days for playing a sort of noble everyman, be it as the tragic widower in Sleepless in Seattle or the hero in Apollo 13. But if you trace him back to his roots, he made his bones as a comically gifted, smarmy prick, light years away from Robert Langdon. In many ways, I miss that incarnation of Hanks. Sure, he’s had some lighthearted fare here and there, but trust me — the Volunteers Hanks is one many are unfamiliar with. For that reason alone, it’s not to be missed.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.