Brow Beat

Tom Hanks’ Latest Press Tour Shows Why America Needs Him to Make Comedies Again

Tom Hanks as Halloween sensation David S. Pumpkins
Tom Hanks as Halloween sensation David S. Pumpkins.

NBC

The promotional cycle for a new Tom Hanks movie is a kind of low-key national holiday. No matter how serious—or, in the case of Inferno, absurd and unnecessary—the film he’s promoting, Hanks fires up his megawatt charm and works the hustings like an old pro. It may not always get audiences into theaters; the Hanks-starring A Hologram for the King was released in April to the worst grosses of Hanks’ entire career. But he’s still a welcome, endlessly ingratiating presence on our screens.

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Over the weekend, Hanks headlined one of the best Saturday Night Live episodes in recent memory, and on Monday, he reprised his leading role from Big in a sketch on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, with the twist being that at 60, he’d rather the vending-machine fortune teller take 30 years off his age than add to it. “Just yesterday, I tried to jump on one of those floor pianos and do a dance,” he told Colbert’s Zoltar. “I swear I heard my hip snap.”

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The central joke is so obvious it’s barely worth making: Tom Hanks is old. But it’s tinged, perhaps inadvertently, with a hint of melancholy. Perhaps Hanks can’t throw his once-gangly body around the way he used to—although it’s worth noting that he’s only a few years older than Robert Loggia was when he joined the thirtysomething Hanks on screen for that calisthenic rendition of “Heart and Soul”—but as his instant-classic appearance as SNL’s David S. Pumpkins made clear, he’s still eminently capable of tapping into the goofball abandon that made him a star in the first place. It’s just that he overwhelmingly chooses not to.

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In Hollywood, the journey from comedian to “serious” actor is a familiar, almost inevitable, one. Actors gain fame by making people like them, but after a while, that’s no longer enough. They crave the recognition of their peers—who with rare exceptions reserve their highest honors for dramatic performances—and even, though few would admit it, the approval of critics. If you’ve ever heard a comic actor talk about his craft, you know that they take comedy incredibly seriously, but others rarely return the favor.

As far back as 1941, this impulse was well-established enough to be sent up by Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels, in which a director of successful Hollywood entertainments sets his career aside to research a gritty exposé of American poverty called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen, whose morbid fear of their own self-seriousness animates some of their best work, later borrowed the title for their own movie.) But after spending time with the real American underclass, Joel McCrea’s would-be artiste realizes that what the down-and-out need most are movies that take them away from their troubles, not ones that purport to reveal the hard truths of life they already know all too well. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he concludes. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

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Hanks’ dramatic career continues to bear fruit: Bridge of Spies and Captain Phillips in particular featured some of the best performances of his career. But turning towards drama has meant turning his back on comedy. In the nearly two decades since You’ve Got Mail, he’s made fewer comedies than you can count on the fingers of one hand, and that’s including the Holocaust-tinged Toy Story 3 and the real-life satire Charlie Wilson’s War. (The jury is still out on what exactly Cloud Atlas is meant to be.) If Hanks stopped acting right now, his last romantic comedy would be 2011’s Larry Crowne, and his last outright comedy 2004’s The Ladykillers, which is by common consent the worst movie the Coen brothers have ever made. This is not a state of affairs we can, as a society, allow to persist. Tom Hanks needs to make more comedies, and the sooner, the better.

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Comedy seems like a young person’s game, especially at the moment, when it’s defined by envelope-pushing, self-consciously tasteless movies like Sausage Party and Bad Moms. But one of the biggest comedy hits of 2016, nestled just below Ghostbusters and made for about a third its budget, is Central Intelligence, which stars Kevin Hart as an easily flustered everyman, not so different from the roles Hanks took on in his comic prime. And if Hanks seems preoccupied with exploring through his projects—both those he stars in and those, like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, he produces—issues of duty, heroism, and national identity, that’s something comedy is eminently capable of. He may be “America’s Dad,” as he portrayed himself in Saturday night’s opening monologue, but that doesn’t mean he has to restrict himself to dad jokes.

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For proof, look no further than SNL’s “Black Jeopardy,” which has rightly been praised as a sophisticated critique of the current political climate. Much of the credit for the sketch goes to SNL writers Michael Che and Bryan Tucker, but what makes it truly transcendent is the sophistication of Hanks’ performance, which lends unexpected depth to the easily caricatured figure of a working-class Donald Trump supporter. When you see Hanks in his battered jean jacket, lopsided goatee, and “Make America Great Again” cap, you feel like you could write the rest of the sketch yourself: Racist white dude is racist—get it? But Hanks holds back, giving the character a soft Southern drawl rather than the expected yee-haw schtick, taking even the sketch’s characters aback with how much common ground they share. They’re so used to seeing the worst in each other that when Kenan Thompson’s host strides over to shake Hanks’s hand, he reflexively recoils, then hastily tries to cover up his discomfort at being rapidly approached by a large black man. It’s funny, but the way Hanks plays it, it’s also terribly sad, and, by the time the sketch arrives at its “Lives That Matter” punchline, downright tragic. So tragic, in fact, that comedy may be the best approach, the equivalent of using a pinhole camera to gaze at an eclipse.

Tom Hanks has two Best Actor Oscars, two Screen Actors Guild awards, and seven Emmys, and he’s as universally beloved as a public figure can be. Surely that’s enough. You’ve earned the nation’s respect; now try making us laugh again. Your country needs you.

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