What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.
When we set out to compile this battle of words over the merits of America’s Beloved Everyman, I knew — without question — that 2000’s Cast Away had to be first on my list.
I remembered it as the quintessential Tom Hanks flick — overwrought, histrionic and the kind of overt Oscar-bait for which the screenwriter, from the first draft, highlights inevitable awards-show clips in the margin notes (Earlier that year, the media gods gave Cast Away an unexpected gift with the premiere of Survivor. Good luck finding a review without a dopey dad joke about getting voted off the island.)
Beyond a $100 million acting-class experiment, there seemed no reason for this film to exist. It’s essentially just “What if Tom Hanks was on an island by himself?” I was so excited to revisit, and rip apart, Cast Away that popped a big bowl of popcorn, grabbed a beer and settled in as though it was a new release I’d anticipated all year. I knew I had beefs with Hanks’ self-congratulatory acting, the relentless product placement and the utter waste of Helen Hunt’s considerable talents as a meaningless prop in yet another Hanks-led “masterpiece” about the triumph of the schlubby white dude. But I was also ready to take notes on the specifics. That’s how badly I sought to savage it, and I was ready to rock.
But then Cast Away surprised me. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I think it’s important in negative criticism to be transparent when something doesn’t go how you’d expect. I expected it to be pretty bad. I expected to have very strong words about how overrated Hanks’ performance was. What I didn’t expect — where my memory of deriding the film for 20 years had let me down …
… was how much worse it was than I remembered.
It’s not just Hanks, although he’s pretty insufferable. The movie itself is a lot worse than you remember as well. Everyone remembers that ridiculous volleyball and a gaunt, shirtless Hanks with his wild beard and sun-bleached hair. No one remembers the unsatisfying plot, the grade-school attempts at symbolism or the surprisingly ineffective characterizations. No one remembers how Hanks makes Chuck Noland profoundly unlikable or how director / accomplice to some of Hanks’ greatest crimes against art Robert Zemeckis inexplicably skips over the potentially interesting storylines and favors the most inane ones.
I suspect the intent was for Chuck to come off more as “secretly charming hardcase” than “emotionally unavailable bully.” Part of that problem is structure, as Cast Away only gives us 28 minutes before the plane crash that sets up Chuck’s survival story, but even with the limited time, there are big misses. Hanks, Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. make choices that undermine Chuck’s potential as a functional character in the story they want to tell. It’s not that Chuck is a jerk; playing someone purposely unpleasant would be a welcome stretch for Hanks. It’s that he’s cruel, self-centered and — taken at face value — unworthy of the love and friendship of those closest to him.
Cast Away presents Chuck as a man obsessed with time — in Russia as the film opens, mercilessly berating Russian FedEx employees (via translator) about the importance of minding the clock ticking ominously over his shoulder so they can sort the day’s packages before the next flight leaves Moscow. (An aside: Nothing in this scene remotely reflects parcel-sorting operations. Were FedEx paying someone like Chuck to fly around the world implementing such haphazard processes as a kind of fixer, they’d be bankrupt by now. Apparently on-set consulting wasn’t part of the free product placement. Chuck’s job is also never exactly explained, other than that it’s super-important and he’s never home.)
Chuck harangues and hollers, lets a random kid waltz in off the street to wander the sorting room, and is basically the living nightmare of anyone in FedEx’s safety or HR departments. Chuck’s obsession is movie shorthand to let us know he’s one of those business dudes who only thinks about work. While it might be more interesting for an actor to emote, perform or … I don’t know, act to establish a character, it’s just so much easier to render Chuck a walking stereotype and let the audience fill in the blanks with their memories of other, better performances that actually embrace those feelings.
Hanks also overplays the script to make Chuck’s unlikability his own, though, in these early scenes. When his best friend, Stan, boards the flight home they’re sharing for Christmas, Chuck doesn’t think to ask about his wife’s fight with cancer until after another employee does. Then, when he tries to make up for it, Chuck can’t resist the urge to make it about himself, as in “Maybe I can do something, maybe I could influence someone you can’t.” Chuck has zero empathy or interest in his friend; he’s the textbook pal you never call in a real crisis because you’d just wind up hearing about their drama instead.
Then we meet Chuck’s long-suffering love interest, Kelly (Hunt), and Cast Away seems to go for an even squarer stereotype — the perfect couple in which the guy just hasn’t gotten around to popping the question. But it’s instead much more sinister than that. Chuck is so self-centered that when conversation inevitably turns toward the question of marriage, he mocks Kelly’s failed past relationships and then mansplains over her to indicate why they haven’t gotten it together. When his pager goes off, they huddle briefly to compare calendars. He dismisses her offer to make time for him — OBSESSED WITH TIME, REMEMBER, but only in one very narrow application — and says if he can be there, he’ll be there. He may as well say, “You’re not as important as my other stuff, and I won’t let you create a sense of obligation that I don’t want to live up to.”
Chuck then makes Kelly open her Christmas presents in the car — a “joke” gift before his actual gift of an engagement ring (or at least a ring box) before his last-minute boarding of the ill-fated flight. Here’s a real testament to the difference in nuance an actor can bring to a performance. Hunt shows real vulnerability in Kelly, attempting to buck up and be OK with the terrible hand towels in a moment where we see how Chuck has disappointed her as he so often has and will again. Not in the script, just in Hunt’s face. When Chuck reveals his joke, we see that while she’s pleased, she’s still a little hurt. And really, what’s more inherently selfish than a gag gift? “I’m going to turn an act of giving and kindness into mockery for my amusement at your expense. Merry Christmas!” Kelly, of course, gives Chuck an incredibly thoughtful gift of a family-heirloom pocket watch, which we’re doomed to see each time Zemeckis wants to remind you of Chuck’s time fixation with the film equivalent of a 2×4 to the forehead.
See, we’re supposed to glean that Chuck’s not such a bad guy deep down. Instead, the brash and cruel way Hanks plays these inane bits renders him a total monster. Kelly is hurt. The audience can feel it. Chuck ignores it. She’s not important and, for now, his “thing” is to make her wait on him — for him to come home, to make time for her, to decide on his own terms when their relationship can move forward. Meanwhile, he mocks her, withholds the emotion she needs and then runs for his plane to do whatever he wants to do. The script might say “lovable workaholic,” but the coldness of Hanks’ performance says “manipulative jerk.”
Even in the plane-crash scene — which, to Zemeckis’s credit, remains tense and terrifying in spite of terribly dated CGI — Chuck’s selfishness gets a pilot killed. He drops the pocket watch and, in a triumph of disbelief’s suspension, unbuckles his safety belt to go get it. The pilot who spots him heroically unbuckles his own belt to help Chuck, only to be savagely knocked unconscious on the ceiling. Our boy got his watch, though! You can almost hear Zemeckis shouting in your ear: “SEE?! HE’S OBSESSED WITH TIME, SO THIS IS WHAT WE CALL SYMBOLISM!” Not the most subtle storyteller, that guy.
Anyway, the movie’s next 17 ½ hours take place on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean, where a volleyball teaches Tom Hanks about friendship and the values of additional product placement. No complex emotions, no sense of loss or defeat, no triumph of the will to live over fear and despair. Just Hanks hamming it up for the camera, as though the man has never actually spent time alone before and has no idea what that might look like. Hanks never becomes a man stranded on an island in the way that a great actor would transform into a character and make it their own. Hanks is never more than Tom Hanks performing a man stranded on an island, never losing his essential Hanksdom. He’s almost a self-caricature, a man doing his best impression of Tom Hanks playing a role. Two-thirds of the movie doing bad monologues with a volleyball, and never once does it feel like Hanks doesn’t know you’re watching.
To that point: Can everyone please get over the fact that he talks to the ball for a minute? One, it’s a clumsy storytelling device — a cheap, easy way to give Hanks a reason to talk while alone. Two, and more importantly, this isn’t some amazing feat of acting. Actors perform without anyone across from them all the time. It’s not an insurmountable challenge. It’s part of them going to work every day. Closeups, onscreen phone conversations, voiceovers: It’s not that big a deal to act for the camera all by yourself. If anything, Hanks’ reliance on the prop detracts further from his performance. Ditto the film’s second half, where he mostly forgoes acting in favor of unkempt-hair and extreme-weight-loss shock value. While those things are certainly striking, they’re also not acting in and of themselves.
Then, the ending in which Hanks survives and escapes (because of course he does). And here it’s Zemeckis who really gets it wrong. Chuck doesn’t ask about Kelly until he’s on the plane with Stan? He didn’t try to call her first, over and over again until he got her on the line? He’s not angry with FedEx for manipulating his story for their own gain? One thing hasn’t changed: Chuck is still obsessed with himself above all else. When I said earlier that Chuck is unworthy of his friend and girlfriend’s love and support, I meant it. After Stan tells him that his cancer-stricken wife died, Chuck responds, “So you had my funeral and then Mary’s funeral” — as if losing Chuck is on par for this poor man with losing his wife.
Chuck treats Kelly even worse, though. She has moved on to marriage and a baby. Even with Hunt’s considerable talents, Zemeckis and Hanks treat her like another volleyball off whom to bounce lines; with no real character to build on, Hunt is along for the ride. When they reunite, Chuck teases her — winding her up with an ominous “So let me get one thing straight here” before easing it into a joke. It’s a throwaway laugh line, meant to lay on that Tom Hanks charm again. But if you think of it as a real conversation between two people sharing a ton of emotional weight, it’s downright cruel.
Chuck is letting Kelly know, in no unsubtle way, that he controls this conversation. He’s reminding her by not saying it out loud that he could feel betrayed and hurt, and if he doesn’t, it’s because of his own benevolence and not because it’s obviously not her fault she chose to made a life for herself in his absence. Then he drops the real manipulation, returning the watch in a huff like a melodramatic teen throwing gifts from an ex into a box and leaving it on the doorstep. It’s a jerk move and an emotional slap in the face for a woman who searched for him while he was missing and grieved for him when she finally accepted he was lost.
Because Cast Away was written by a dude, Kelly follows him out in the rain and kisses him and tells him he’s the most important man ever in the whole world — even if Kelly’s betrayal of her family doesn’t seem like a very believable turn given what little characterization we’ve seen. Zemeckis teases that Kelly will ride off with Chuck, but she just as quickly and unbelievably comes to her senses and heads back inside. What is she going to tell her husband? Is she making a hard choice for good or will she make it every day, whenever the baby spills juice on the floor or her husband starts an argument? Is she even making the right choice for herself? Kelly isn’t the story’s focus, but it seems like no one considered what all this would mean to her in writing that final scene.
The only woman in the film with a meaningful line, played by one of the late-1990s’ finest character actresses, and her entire emotional journey is wrapped up in 30 seconds so we can move on to yet one more interminable Hanks monologue — Chuck wrapped in a blanket, explaining to Stan how heroic it was for him to let Kelly go. As if her life was Chuck’s to control and her future his choice to make. It’s meant to be a thoughtful rumination on accepting the fate life hands you, but it’s vapid, pseudointellectual word salad hinging on a notion that the man is always a relationship’s main character. Chuck says he’s going to keep carrying on, facing the next day and the next to see where the world takes him. You know, like pretty much everyone does. — the quintessential Tom Hanks closer, a white dude reflecting on how great it is when white dudes do perfectly normal stuff.
Cast Away benefits from a lot of nostalgia and over-appreciation of Tom Hanks in general, but it definitely does not hold up. It tells us nothing new or different about a person (and a white, male person almost every time) triumphing over nature because Broyles and Zemeckis don’t push the envelope beyond old tropes and worn-out themes. It shows us nothing interesting about solitude or the emotional devastation of isolation because Hanks is too busy mugging for the camera to actually act like someone who’s alone. It offers no dimension to the struggle of coming back to life, instead dooming other characters to sit back and watch Chuck pontificate about what it all means. Cast Away doesn’t do much of anything, really, besides put up a good front to make everyone remember a movie that was never really there.