America’s dad Tom Hanks has had a long acting career encompassing a wide variety of roles and genres. Comedic schlubs, hardened gangsters, war heroes, and a toy cowboy. Even when the movie as a whole falls short he is consistently good. What makes him such a talented actor is his ability to truly embody a character. Some stars are always themselves. Those selves can be very entertaining but they are still the same selves they were in every other movie. That’s Jason Statham kicking that dude’s face, not Frank Martin. Often when watching Tom Hanks I forget he is Tom Hanks the movie star and become invested in his character enough to see him only as Jim Lovell, Chuck Noland, or Captain Phillips. And that is one of the best compliments I can give an actor.
So let us begin the Tom Hanks lightning round!
(Potential minor spoilers.)
He Knows You’re Alone – Hanks’ first onscreen role, I’d never heard of this 1980 slasher movie and now I know why. It’s awful. Hanks is a tertiary character in two scenes who’s only job is to drop some psych 101 tidbits about fear and then leave. The rest of the movie is just plain dull. It’s ever present stalking killer and soundtrack try to evoke Halloween and Psycho. That’s a bad idea when your movie falls woefully short of that company. Small credit for pulling the “kill someone in a movie theater while they watch a horror movie so no one realizes right away” gag long before Scream 2.
Splash – Hanks plays the straight man in this rom-com about falling in love with a mermaid. It’s like The Little Mermaid with less calypso music. Despite having some real talent behind this movie including Ron Howard, John Candy, and Eugene Levy, the whole thing is pretty bland. I was more invested when Tom Hanks’s primary relationship was with a volleyball.
The Burbs – Walking the line between the sensible guy and the crazy guy, Hanks and fellow neighbors investigate the weird new additions to the neighborhood who would probably be friends with the Addams family or the Munsters. The movie escalates well as the good Samaritans concoct wild schemes to prove that these new people are obviously killers or mad scientists or something equally nefarious. This one is good for a chuckle and is actually a decent stealth Halloween movie.
Turner & Hooch – I bought Hanks as a neat freak, less so as a cop in this generic comedy crime movie. When the only witness to a friend’s murder is a large messy dog Hanks must adopt it so it can help solve the crime. Hilarity ensues! I guess? Hanks does his trademark exasperated yelling a lot. (Think “There’s no crying in baseball!”) You can see his talent shine through when he needs to emote genuine concern for his friend and his new canine companion, but he can’t elevate the rest of the movie around him. This failed to hold my interest at all. Side question: has Reginald VelJohnson ever played anything other than a cop?
Joe vs The Volcano – The single biggest mistake of Hanks’ career. No, not this movie, that mullet. The movie itself is actually pretty good! Hanks uses his ability to bring a fully formed character to life to be genuinely funny as a sad sack hypochondriac as well as moving and heartfelt when speaking about finding meaning in what little he has left of his life. Two oddities in this one: Meg Ryan plays three unrelated roles and a jagged symbol shows up in random, sometimes abstract ways. I can’t quite put my finger on the motivation behind those choices. What am I missing?
Sleepless in Seattle – The one that many hold up as the best of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan rom-coms, this falls in the sweet spot after dealing with a volcano and before they had mail. Since the two lovebirds don’t actually meet until the very end the real heart of this movie for me was Hanks, his son, and their desire to help each other through the hardship of losing the mom of the family. Their relationship is sweet and heartwarming. Also, Meg Ryan is kind of a stalker? But hey. It’s all a little silly and by the numbers but it does what it does well and it serves its purpose as a feel good fluff movie admirably.
Philadelphia – An emotional courtroom drama that deals with issues that are important to me: discrimination against others, in particular based on sexual orientation. Hanks is fired from his job and believes it to be simply because he is gay and has AIDS. The prejudices, especially fearing people with AIDS as if simply being in their presence could transmit the disease, feel outdated to me, and hopefully are. But when this movie was released in 1993 AIDS was still very unknown and very scary to the general public. Hanks gives a nuanced and somber performance fighting for what is right while also fighting to survive to see the end of the trial. Denzel Washington is charismatic as always as he tries to rise above his own prejudices. When it was released this movie was likely powerful, but today it’s a pair of great performances in what is otherwise only a good movie.
You’ve Got Mail – Hanks and Ryan needed a bump in their careers and decided to be schmaltzy together again! AOL and the dulcet tones of dial-up modems instantly date this movie. In a twist Hanks is actually kind of an asshole for much of the film and leaves most of the heart and charm to Meg Ryan. I was ready to write this one off as uninteresting pretty quickly but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t a little won over by the end of it. But then maybe I’m just partial to happy endings for online relationships. I did marry mine after all.
Saving Mr. Banks – Walt Disney uses his good nature, warm heart, and desire to bring merriment to children of the world to convince the stuffy stick in the mud Australian born British author of the original Mary Poppins books to open her heart, enjoy life, and allow Mary Poppins to be turned into a movie. From what I understand this film, which was produced by the Disney company, has a very…loose relationship with the truth. The history books are written by the winners, after all. Putting that issue aside for now, what we have is an emotional film about using fiction to deal with your demons and how creators can put even more of their soul into their work than you may realize. Thompson shines as she sticks her nose up at the frivolity of Disneyland and wrestles with the notion of “giving up” her characters that mean so much to her. Hanks is a kindly and charismatic father figure who is good-naturedly stubborn enough to help Thompson even when she doesn’t want it. If you changed all the names to makes this a totally fictional story it’d be a solid recommend. As it is, it’s still a very enjoyable film, just don’t take the story it presents as being strictly factual.