Cast Away
Director: Robert Zemeckis. Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy, Chris Noth. Screenplay: William Broyles, Jr.

When I prayed to the film divinities that I wanted less Tom Hanks at the movies, I didn't just mean that I wanted him to be thinner.

To be honest, I think Hanks is a perfectly adequate actor. I think he's contributed his best work in goofy comedies (Splash, The Money Pit, Big) and in animated marvels (the original Toy Story and its sequel), though I realize the current vogue is to assess his career primarily as a series of dramas. My problem is less with him than with his project choices, since this actor seems innately drawn to all but unfinished material. The movies tend to tell us things we already know, for example that war and space disasters are hell, but at least America is, like, the greatest. Sometimes they actually tell us things that offend me, like that history is best endured (triumphed over?) via conservatively couched idiocy (Forrest Gump), or that it's okay and perhaps touching to be gay so long as you don't kiss your lover, or even touch much (Philadelphia). Even his awards acceptance speeches, of which there have been so dizzyingly many, strike me as refreshingly sincere and genuinely grateful, but then they turn unbelievably florid and highfalutin, and I stop understanding what he's saying—the same way I think my dad felt when Maya Angelou read her 1992 inaugural poem.

What is Tom's body of work, which seems inseparably to comprise his roles and his own persona, meant to tell us? He's touted as one of Hollywood's most decent men, which I do not doubt, but he is also touted as among its most articulate and liberally compassionate, and here I must dispute. He is the star par excellence of movies that seem somehow "affirmative," but have a heck of a time getting through the Trough of Clichés that lies between points A and B. For all of these reasons, I thought it might be good for Tom, as well as for me, that Cast Away seemed so baldly like an apolitical, resolutely populist fable, with some modest experimentation thrown in: Tom Hanks is stranded, at the very edge of the world. If there's anyone whose entire recent career has prepared him to play a Civilization Of One, it is this man. I haven't heard anything this high-concept since Jack Nicholson As Werewolf, or at least Jim Carrey As Grinch.

The sum of all this hype, however, this alleged change of direction, is that Tom has indeed refrained from feeding us some crystallized political homily or dubious jingoistic anthem. This time, he has settled for a film that tells us nothing. Which is not to say that the film adds up to nothing. The true fact is something much more intriguing, maybe even without peer in the recent years of Hollywood movie-making—a film that exists entirely, for better or for worse, and with great self-conscious intent, by virtue of what it is not, what it lacks. In the neutral and good columns, these things: no flags, virtually no costars, virtually no dialogue, and virtually no emotion-cuing music. (He still gets a big bleeding-heart speech, but it'll take more than a desert island to yank that away from Tom.) In the negative column, and it's a big negative: no point. The film naïvely keeps returning to images of Hanks' character, Chuck Noland, standing in the middle of an arid crossroads, ostensibly to indicate, albeit with staggering literalness, the many uncertain paths in which his life could move. Instead, the movie manages to epitomize itself in those mantra-like shots: it's got Tom Hanks, who looms above his flat surroundings, but the film has nowhere to take him, no direction for his story to take.

In this case, it is required to thumbnail the movie's plot starting at the middle, rather than the beginning. The central 90 minutes or so of Cast Away, as its title indicates, portray the attempts of Hanks' Chuck, the lone survivor of a plane crash in the South Pacific, to stay alive on the unpopulated atoll where he washes up. With no one to talk to but a volleyball (necessity, as we know, is the mother of invention), Chuck has to adapt shelter, preserve his clothing, gather food, patrol for animals, and signal any plane or watercraft that should errantly pass near his remote coordinates. The technical challenge here is impressive, since Hanks has to act opposite nothing, and cinematographer Don Burgess, editor Arthur Schmidt, and director Robert Zemeckis—all vets of the Gump Machine—have to keep the audience in their narrative and visual grip. I rarely caught Hanks doing anything completely unfamiliar with stories in this genre, from Robinson Crusoe to Six Days, Seven Nights, but nor was I ever bored. The actor is, as ever, an economical communicator of rational process, not necessarily an easy state to convey on film. This is a movie largely of Tom Hanks thinking, and without breaking much new ground, he does keep the picture itself from breaking, and that's a creditable feat.

Still, it's also an easy feat to overvalue, because, as with Saving Private Ryan, the tougher passages are generously padded with long stretches that make us feel good, even if they don't seem like a tonal or thematic match with the rest of what we've been watching. The entire opening chapter emblematizes this flaw. The sequence is far too long, stretching to include scenes of Chuck marshalling his FedEx crew in Moscow; Chuck eating a Christmas dinner; Chuck making goo-goo eyes at his fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt, trying to fill holes); and the horrific airplane explosion that produces his predicament. Of all these events, the plane crash deserves extraordinary credit from an editing and effects standpoint, but it immediately raises another problem. Zemeckis is chronically guilty of making movies that play like individual scenes he was excited by, strung together by narrative passages that feel uniform, even neglected. Remember, for example, how routine What Lies Beneath becomes except in the "bravura" set pieces (the bath tub, the dock) that strive to justify the whole movie being made. The plane crash is impressive, but it flaunts its impressiveness as a raison d'Ítre, and makes the chubby, repetitive scenes preceding it seem even chubbier. Do these filmmakers know that one shot of Hanks barking orders in a warehouse, while wearing a FedEx hat, would communicate everything we get out of the film's first ten minutes?

Again, I've got no quibble with the island sequences, but because this is an American movie, and a Hanks movie, Cast Away decides that Chuck's gotta get back home. Don't even talk to me about the fact that this man constructs a raft with spring-loaded windsail and collapsible flaps to get home; clearly, this is a story about a "normal man" struggling to survive only to the extent that being a mechanical engineer and beginner's-luck flotation seafarer are "normal." Certainly don't talk to me about the whales we meet during those lonely ocean nights; the shot of a yellow mechanical eyeball rising from the deep to blink at Chuck mostly serves to confirm that a film which has admirably denied itself cheap narrative tricks and stunt effects for an hour and a half is happy to trot them out by the end. Cue also that awful string music—fear not, ladies and gentlemen, your mood will be assigned before the picture is over.

All of that would be more forgivable if Cast Away had any idea what to do with Chuck, or with itself, when he returns to the United States. For a while, we think we're getting a reinitialization drama—can Chuck relearn how to live in the world's most technologically pampered country? Then we sink into an unbelievably ill-choreographed, protracted romantic reunion thing—will Kelly abandon the man she married during Chuck's four-year absence, and return to the man she thought was dead? The script, by William Broyles, is as doggedly loyal to Kelly as Chuck is. It won't let her go, even though she couldn't be more thinly drawn or peripheral. Hanks' fifth-act, nomination-begging speech is about how everything he survived seems small and unimportant if he can't have this woman he loved—and I'm sorry if that seems more like a concession to ticket-buyers than a genuine outgrowth of what this material is about.

Let me finally mention, too, that we learn only after Chuck returns home that he was for a long time suicidal on that island, and attempted to hang himself, but we realize we never saw that Chuck. The dissolve that gets us from his first weeks of strandedness to his fourth year nicely convey us from the resolve of a recent shipwreck to the resolve of someone determined to get home; like every other Hanks "drama," Cast Away reveals itself to have been safely laundered of its darker patches, which undoubtedly would be the most interesting. I do not say so because I am morbidly fixated on watching people who think they are going to die. I say so because this material insists, as do its press releases, that Cast Away is about existential despair, or the triumph of the will over adversity, or some such theme, but the film is too bashful to hit the bottom-most circles of that adversity. Perversely, Toy Story was infinitely more honest in staring down Woody's uncertainty that Andy would ever find him again.

Like Chuck's own body, which is demurely covered by a loincloth after four years of no neighbors, Cast Away tucks anything that might be hard to look at out of our field of vision. When all is said and done, this is solitude made cozy, aloneness with perks. Without a full-on commitment to Chuck's plight while he's amidst it, and without any certainty where to follow him after his return, the movie is handicapped from telling his story. Hanks also is denied (or denies himself) the challenge of summoning up a dark side, and Chuck is finally a cipher. There is too much the filmmakers have elected not to do or show, or not to think through fully, so it's the movie and its perennially misbegotten star which in the end are cast away. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Tom Hanks
Best Sound: Randy Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis S. Sands, and William B. Kaplan

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor (Drama): Tom Hanks

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actor (Hanks)

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