My friend Bill McKibben has written a wry, moving, and daringly unresolved new book called Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, which focuses in part on his quest to turn his lanky frame into a cross country racing machine: to strip away the layers of fat (literal and metaphorical) between him and the natural world; to drop his standing heart rate to the level of someone very, very fit (or else close to death); to test his body for the sake of renewing his spirit. (He also takes time out to ruminate on various brands of ski wax.) I’m of two minds about my friend’s grueling odyssey—I find aspects of it terribly brave and others somewhat egocentric (in a good-humoredly masochistic sort of way). What I’m sure of is that McKibben’s book does a brilliant job of mirroring our culture’s parallel obsessions with body-sculpting and self-obliteration, and that the same tension fuels (in Hollywoodized form) the entertaining but half-baked new Tom Hanks vehicle, Cast Away.
Hanks came up with the concept of Cast Away a few years back when he was looking a little pudgy, a little comfy, a little multimillionaire-esque. Major movie stars—our royalty—often claim (and sometimes really think) that they’re ordinary folks who haven’t been spoiled by their wealth and other people’s incessant deference; but they’re quick to become impatient when their wishes aren’t gratified this second. My hunch is that Hanks, allegedly a smart and decent man, recognized how insulated and entitled he’d become and dreamed up a scenario that would compel him to get back in touch with his body—and with his essential, unentitled self. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that in the bargain he’d lose that spare tire, make $20 million or $30 million, and maybe rack up another Oscar.
This is not to belittle Hanks’ astonishing physical transformation from chunk to sinewy nature boy or his very fine performance. CastAway, directed by Robert Zemeckis, is full of sensational stuff, including the most harrowing plane crash ever filmed (or computer-generated). The movie is genuinely transporting—a sure bet to make audiences gulp in awe. The trouble is that its makers think it’s about one set of things—true love, faith, letting go of the illusion of control—when it’s equally about other, less lofty things: vanity, solipsism, and the control of illusion (i.e., big-budget, perfectionistic moviemaking). Hanks and Zemeckis (and writer William Broyles Jr.) are so intent on making an epic of the spirit that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the comic, narcissistic side of their desert island fantasy. And so on simple, human terms, the picture gets all gummed up.
Before you’ve even settled into your seat, Zemeckis whacks you over the head with the movie’s elevated motifs. After an overture that plays like an especially grandiose Federal Express commercial (Hanks plays a FedEx executive named Chuck Noland), we find ourselves in Moscow, where the star, tailored to show off his flab, is lecturing fuddled new capitalists on the paramount importance of time: “Eighty-seven hours [for a package delivery] is a shameful outrage, an eternity!” he roars. Then he’s on his cell phone to the answering machine of his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt): “Are you there? Pickup-pickup-pickup-pickup.” This could all be played for laughs: Hanks’ character is being set up—like the middle executive (Peter Riegert) in Bill Forsyth’s enchanting Local Hero (1983)—for a universe without ticks, tocks, buzzes, or beeps. But Zemeckis’ momentous touch suggests that he and Hanks are going for something more archetypal than a mere overfed, Type-A shmuck. This is Civilization Man at war with Time and Nature. It’s no accident that his name is No Land.
The humorlessness wouldn’t matter as much if the movie’s central human relationship had been fleshed out, but Zemeckis has forgotten how to film a simple interaction. (I’m no longer sure that the non-vibe between Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in What LiesBeneath was deliberate.) Hunt plays her scenes extra glum, and Zemeckis seems to hint in the movie’s first section that Kelly, a doctoral candidate, is ambivalent about her fanatically punctual paramour. You’d think that on some level she’d be relieved to be rid of this overcontrolling lard-ass—which would give the last section, in which Chuck shows up with a great new body and a Zen outlook, a lewd and funny subtext. But when she announces he was her soul mate, the love of her life, you go: “Huh?”
The director is out of his depth in these scenes, but give him a logistical challenge and hoo-boy, stand back: the plummeting of the FedEx plane into the ocean as seen from inside the cabin—boffo. Chuck on a raft pitched in all directions by evil black swells—take that, The Perfect Storm. There must have been a hundred crewmembers on that island with Hanks, but the sense of isolation is breathtakingly tactile. The most vivid things in the film are process-oriented, rudely mechanical: Chuck learning how to crack a coconut, to start a fire with sticks, to turn a pair of ice-skates (from a washed-up FedEx box) into a hatchet.
I wish I hadn’t predicted, after watching Chunky Chuck fumble in his efforts to spear a fish, that the first thing we’d see after the “Four Years Later” title would be a fish speared with lightning speed. Even so, that first shot of Lean Chuck is shocking. Hanks has never been an especially physical actor—it was his quick verbal sparring that made him a star. So the sight of his ropy, near-naked body as he crouches over his prey—and later, as he chews the fish and stares straight ahead, at nothing—is hideously poignant. We all know about the year Hanks took to lose that weight; what I hadn’t expected was the loss of affect, the face tanned like leather past all expectation. Chuck’s human side is reserved for a volleyball he calls by its manufacturer’s name—Wilson—and onto which he has painted a smiling visage in his own blood. “Wilson”is his blood: The part of him that hasn’t been reduced to muscle and sinew. This is literally the movie’s most red-blooded relationship.
Even in its best scenes, however, there’s something impersonally efficient in Zemeckis’ technique. In Caleb Deschanel’s slight, New Agey but affecting Crusoe (1988), the director (one of our greatest cinematographers) fastened his camera on stones and branches and lopsided, jelly-coated bugs, so that when Crusoe (Aidan Quinn) began to feel at one with his island, we did, too. Cast Away means to be slow and contemplative, but you don’t feel a sense of discovery in Zemeckis’ work—the true freedom of a filmmaker who hasn’t storyboarded every shot and posed his actors like visitors to Forrest Gump’s park bench. When Chuck makes a long, self-conscious speech about giving up control to find the meaning of life (“Who knows what the tide will bring?”) and then journeys into the world to let his destiny find him, his epiphany is undercut by the overcontrolled imagery and symbolism—the picturesque crossroads behind Tom Hanks’ head. The tide evidently brings in lots of rusty clichés.
There are lots of other movies opening this week, the good ones in only a couple of theaters in New York or Los Angeles to qualify for this year’s Academy Awards. (They’ll expand nationwide throughout January.)
My 10 best list isn’t compiled yet, but here are the leading candidates:
You Can Count on Me
Before Night Falls
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Slate is off next Monday and Tuesday, but I’m pleased to announce that Wednesday through Friday will be the third incarnation of “The Movie Club.” This year, it’s a thrill to welcome my old Village Voice colleague J. Hoberman, the formidable Roger Ebert, newlywed Sarah Kerr, my neighbor A.O. Scott, and maybe a few other critics who are tempted to mix it up.