Tom Hanks Is Most Exciting When He’s In Character Actor Mode

Tom Hanks has often been called ‘America’s dad.’ But, what the Coen Brothers, the Wachowski Sisters, and Baz Luhrman have asked is: “What if he was America’s creepy, sinister uncle?”

Hanks remains one of the biggest stars in film, and is now starring in Luhrman’s blockbuster Elvis biopic alongside Austin Butler. His acting choices in recent years look a little different than they have for the previous four decades of his career. Hanks started in the ‘80s as a primarily comedic actor, leading the sitcom Bosom Buddies, before making the jump to movie stardom in comedies like Splash, The Money Pit, Big, The ‘Burbs, and Turner & Hooch. Toward the end of that run, he starred alongside Meg Ryan in the absurdist romcom Joe Versus The Volcano as a guy in a dead end office job convinced to throw himself into a volcano as a ritual sacrifice after finding out he only has a few months left to live.

Though Volcano is a tonal outlier, Hanks’ collaborations with Ryan would help define his nice guy persona during his superstar ‘90s run, which kicked off with him winning back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. After A League of their Own in 1992, every Hanks film (except his feature directorial debut That Thing You Do!) would gross over $100 million at the box office. That streak came to a halt in 2004, when Hanks donned a Colonel Sanders suit and Billy goat goatee for The Ladykillers, a rare villainous turn.

Despite the star’s involvement, the Coen Brothers' remake wasn't a big hit. But, the movie is worth watching — if only to see Hanks’ full commitment to the character. As Professor G.H. Dorr, Hanks is a deceptive dandy who — with a gang of thieves played by J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans, Ryan Hurst, and Tzi Ma — tricks an elderly Black woman into allowing them to use her dirt wall basement to dig to a nearby casino vault and steal a fortune. Dorr is a pathetic, petty thief who is always convinced he's the smartest person in the room; he doesn’t love anything as much as hearing himself talk. Hanks is great in the role, fully selling the character's low-rent villainy. He's just charming enough that you believe he could (at least temporarily) convince a team of crooks to follow his lead, but not so charming that you think he actually has much chance of pulling it off. More than any of his ‘90s leading man roles, Dorr is a highwire act that requires careful calibration of tone. He’s out on a limb, but he doesn’t fall.

Eight years later, Hanks would join up with the Wachowski Sisters — best known for The Matrix — for Cloud Atlas, a sci-fi epic in which he would take on six roles across 500 years and six locations. Hanks radically altered his appearance for the parts, most memorably as Dermot Hoggins, a bruising author with a buzzcut, dagger-like sideburns, a grody goatee, pierced ear, tattooed knuckles, a gold chain and a cockney accent, who carries a clipping of a bad review of his book in his jacket pocket and, when confronted with the critic’s humiliating wit in person, chucks him off a window. It’s a shockingly low-status turn, and you can see the embarrassment and anger in Hanks’ eyes.

This year, Hanks is back in character actor mode as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' thieving manager. With a bald cap, fat suit, and a cigar permanently perched on his lips, Hanks isn't unrecognizable, but he is recognizably playing a role outside the typical Hanks wheelhouse. Griffin Newman of the Blank Check with Griffin and David podcast is fond of saying that in this stage of his career (roughly the last 10-15 years), Hanks has gotten really good at playing guys who are really good at their job. Whether it's surviving a protracted hostage situation in Captain Phillips, saving 155 passengers lives by executing a forced water landing in Sully, or building an intelligent robot to take care of his dog after his death in Finch, Hanks' fastball is playing men who seem like the very best of us.

That’s what makes it so entertaining when Hanks goes dark. His facility as a down-the-middle (but preternaturally likable) leading man gave him an unprecedented run at the top of the box office. But his immense talent at playing variations on one type of character can distract from how good he is at modulating his performance to fit the movie he’s in. In The Ladykillers, his turn is perfectly attuned to the Coens’ seriocomic voice. In Cloud Atlas, his range of characters is deftly attuned to the Wachowskis’ operatic melodrama. And, in Elvis, his turn as a showman with an eye for carnivalesque flair is expertly calibrated to Luhrman’s hyperactive vision. Whether Hanks is playing an actual cartoon character, like Woody in the Toy Story movies, or a human cartoon, like Parker, he has impressive control of his instrument.

It isn’t without risk. Though Elvis is a blockbuster, The Ladykillers and Cloud Atlas were both commercially unsuccessful. Audiences like seeing ‘Tom Hanks’, the actor playing into the persona, and Hanks rarely steps too far outside that carefully created image. And maybe he shouldn’t! He’s really good as a likable dad. And, the absence of America’s weird uncle can only make the heart grow fonder.

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