It will come as something of a shock to persons of a certain age that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Tom Hanks’ ascension to screen stardom in “Splash” and, to a lesser but still important extent, “Bachelor Party.” And yes, I know, he appeared in the 1980 slasher flick “He Knows You’re Alone,” too, but it was only in retrospect that anyone noticed.
“Splash” proved that the one-time star of “Bosom Buddies” could actually carry a movie, and while the raunchy “Bachelor Party” wasn’t nearly as big a hit, the film demonstrated that Hanks’ unique brand of sardonic humor and lovability could turn even an R-rated T&A romp into something smarter and sweeter than audiences might have expected.
In the years thereafter, Hanks created a blueprint that subsequent generations of funnymen would try to follow, taking comic roles that were occasionally darker and more dramatic until audiences were finally ready to let the clown play Hamlet.
“Big” let Hanks be in touch with his child-like side as the film flirted with bathos without succumbing to it; “Punchline,” on the other hand, tapped into his comedic abilities but allowed him to express the rage and doubt that so often simmers beneath the surface of people who make a living making other people laugh. Even as early as 1986’s underrated “Nothing in Common,” Hanks was giving us undertones of anger beneath a breezy, jokey façade.
In would-be funny movies that didn’t work — “Dragnet,” say, or “You’ve Got Mail” — Hanks was always compelling to watch, making a fleeting facial expression that could undercut a tense situation or subtly upturning an eyebrow to spin badly-written straw into comedy gold.
But these days, to quote The Joker from last summer’s “The Dark Knight,” “Why so serious?” Because outside of the “Toy Story” movies, where you can’t even see his face, it feels like Hanks has abandoned comedy entirely; that shift wouldn’t be feel like such an unexpected pothole in the road if were he selecting interesting dramas, but I don’t know that we want to trade Hanks’ comedic skills to sit through obvious sentimental tear-jerkery like “The Green Mile” or the faux-controversial “The Da Vinci Code” again.
Trade in St. Hanks for fun Hanks
What has brought Hanks to this place so often seen in popular culture, where artists start taking themselves way too seriously? I still remember a Rolling Stone article about U2, circa “The Joshua Tree,” that complained that every photo of the band made them look like they were about to deliver the Gettysburg Address. When’s the last time you saw Tom Hanks not looking like a Distinguished Hollywood Elder Statesman?
Yes, Hanks did win back-to-back best actor Oscars for “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia,” but it should be noted that his predecessor at that feat, Spencer Tracy, made all of his immortal comedies with Katharine Hepburn after doing so. Heck, the very last two films Tracy made were “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (the “Philadelphia” of its day, only about interracial marriage instead of AIDS) and the broad and slapstick-heavy farce “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Granted, Hanks’ reticence to return to comedy makes a certain amount of sense when you look at his recent track record: After making “The Ladykillers,” “The Terminal” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” in succession, you can’t blame him for thinking that the genre isn’t doing him any favors. But if there’s any lesson to be learned from Hanks’ career, it’s that he’s one of those rare leading men who gets to dust himself off after a failure and be granted another chance from the moviegoing public.
This is the guy who starred in “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Joe Versus the Volcano” in the same year, let’s not forget, but in no time was once again charming audiences in “A League of Their Own” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Could it be that his off-camera activities are making him stiff these days? There were laughs to be had in “That Thing You Do!” and “The Great Buck Howard,” but Hanks made only token appearances in them, apparently choosing instead to focus more on his duties as, respectively, writer-director and producer. And it would certainly make sense if Hanks decided he wanted to give up the greasepaint altogether, since his Playtone production company keeps racking up the hits, from the big-screen adaptation of “Mamma Mia!” to the popular and acclaimed HBO series “Big Love” and “John Adams.”
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But seriously, Mr. Hanks, if you’re going to keep working as an actor — and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t — could you maybe kick back a little and have some fun? Host “Saturday Night Live” again, maybe, or talk your old “Splash” pal Ron Howard into doing a breezy and snarky comedy instead of another adaptation of a Dan Brown airport paperback thriller?
I mean, you’re making a fortune as an entertainment mogul, so you’re obviously not taking these gigs for the money. This isn’t a case of, say, Steve Martin doing another “Pink Panther” sequel so he can add a few more multi-million dollar blue chip pieces to his legendary art collection. You can be picky and still tap into your legendarily brilliant comic sensibilities. If Harold Ramis can insinuate himself into the Judd Apatow gang, surely there are some young and intelligent comedy guys out there who could give you something fun to do while benefiting from your decades of experience.
Because the thought of a new generation growing up knowing you only as “the mullet guy from ‘Da Vinci Code’” is just too depressing.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.
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