Monday, May 16, 2011

Special Deliveries

With You've Got Mail and Cast Away Hanks returned to romantic form -- but continued to explore issues facing company men

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Saving Private Ryan was a profound but demanding movie. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tom Hanks's next movie was a light romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail (1998). Yet even here Hanks continued to show himself as a company man (albeit a different kind of company). Mail is remake of the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as rival employees of a Budapest retail store, not realizing that the other is the anonymous but cherished pen pal. The clever conceit concocted by co-writer with her sister)/producer/director Nora Ephron, who worked with Hanks and co-star Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, is to set their scenario on the upper west side of Manhattan. This time Hanks and Ryan are rival bookstore owners – he a big chain, she a small independent – who meet in a chat room and conduct a relationship via email. A film truly of its moment, Mail became quickly dated in surprising but intriguing ways: America Online (AOL), email, and chat rooms have all become relics, at least in their original form, and chain bookstores, once commercial juggernauts steamrollered all in their path, have themselves become endangered species thank to online retailing and e-books.
In a gentle but unmistakable way, You’ve Got Mail satirizes the righteous indignation of the small businessperson when faced with a corporate challenge. Meg Ryan’s character is utterly charming in many ways, but increasingly embittered by her inability to compete with the new chain. Hanks’s character, for his part, is an unapologetic capitalist who sees himself as providing a real service to consumers. He reacts – again more evident in expression than language – with genuine sticker shock when he takes the children from his father’s second marriage (Dabney Coleman, playing his customary role as roué to perfection) to Ryan’s shop and pays full retail for the books they buy. Ryan eventually comes by his store, and we viewers recognize – as she silently appears to – that its coffee shop, winding staircase, and vast inventory really represent a bona fide booklover’s dream, even if the clueless clerk can’t provide a customer with the name of a prominent children’s author (a service she renders as a bystander). He finds out the identity of his writing partner before she does, and strings her along a bit, but she – much to her own dismay – proves far more spontaneously biting than he ever is. It’s worth emphasizing that in the carefully calibrated character calculus of the romantic comedy, of which this is an exemplar even more deft than its original source, Hanks’s character never pays a price for corporate sin. Which, coming from an upper-west side liberal like Ephron, may be surprising. Yet it’s of a piece with what might be termed the character of Hanks characters.
Actually, it can be plausibly said that the greatest danger for the Institutional Man is not defeat, military, commercial, or otherwise, but rather isolation. This is the premise of Hanks’s 2000 film Cast Away, in which he plays yet another company man, this time a time-obsessed FedEx systems analyst, who becomes the sole survivor in a plane crash and is forced to live on an uninhabited Pacific island for four years. Deprived of companionship, he resorts to inventing it in the form of a volleyball he names after its manufacturer: Wilson. Hanks, who does some of the best acting of his career in this tour de force, conveys just how deeply his companion bonds with Wilson; one of the saddest moments in the movie comes when he finds himself separated from this cherished friend. But what may be the most truly wrenching aspect of his ordeal is his eventual return to society and his only partially successful attempts to recover what he has lost. Perhaps not surprisingly, his work life affords him more solace than his personal life does. 

Coming Next: Organized crime (and law enforcement) in the land of Hanks