Hollywood marriages are not usually expected to have a very long shelf life. They’re lucky if they last a few years. Then there are the exceptions like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. These two are getting close to 30 years together. For a Hollywood couple that’s pretty darn impressive. So where did it all begin? Well in 1985, while Hanks was still married to someone else, they appeared in a film together. It was also the second time Hanks appeared in a film with John Candy, after the success of Splash the previous year. It’s time for a look at the funny side of the Peace Corps in 1985’s Volunteers.
Hanks plays Lawrence Bourne III, a rich kid who has just graduated from Yale and has a considerable gambling debt which his father (George Plimpton) has no intention of paying for him. So, to escape from the tough guys who are trying to kill him, he switches places with his college roommate and boards a plane full of Peace Corps volunteers headed for Thailand. On the plane he meets an engineer named Tom Tuttle (Candy) and the idealistic Beth Wexler (Wilson). Lawrence and Beth spend the entire flight talking to each other, but when he makes it clear he wants more than friendship, she wants nothing to do with him.
Upon arrival in Thailand, Lawrence, Tom, and Beth are taken to a village by their supervisor John (Tim Thomerson) where they are supposed to help the villagers build a bridge across the river. It seems that everybody, except the villagers, are interested in building this bridge. The local warlord needs it so he can control the region, so he enlists Lawrence to see its speedy completion with the promise of a ticket home and the money to pay his gambling debts. Meanwhile, a communist army also wants control of the bridge, so they capture and brainwash Tom to do the job for them. Oh, and then there’s John, who is not only trying to romance Beth but also happens to actually be an agent for the CIA. Eventually, it becomes clear that nobody can get their hands on the bridge, so Lawrence and Beth set out to do it in Alec Guiness style.
Though Hanks had a big year in 1984 with Splash and Bachelor Party, 1985 was not as kind to him. Both this film and The Man with one Red Shoe failed to make a big impact. Volunteers does have its share of laughs, though. I’ve always enjoyed the 80’s comedy version of Hanks. His odd expressions and the way he blurts some of his lines have just always struck me as funny. However, we do see a strange miscalculation on Hanks’ part in this film…a ridiculous accent. He’s supposed to be a rich New Englander…so the accent is slightly Boston, slightly cartoon butler, and worst of all it comes and goes. When I looked at some other people’s opinions of this film it seemed that several found the accent so distracting that they had hard time enjoying the rest of the film. I didn’t really find it to get in the way, but it is strange to see Hanks struggle.
John Candy has some funny moments, as well. It’s interesting that we are introduced to his character on an airplane in a scene that is more than a bit prophetic of the character he would play a few years later in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Candy’s scenes with his communist captors are also very funny. They end up brainwashing him to such an extent that he starts to get on their nerves with all the communist propaganda he spouts. The problem is that Candy’s role is essentially a glorified cameo. He disappears for large portions of the film…which is a crime against moviemaking, pure and simple. Rita Wilson does a solid job, though she doesn’t necessarily stand out. There are some fun moments, though, with Gedde Watanabe as the lone villager who can speak English.
Overall, I did find Volunteers to be pretty funny, though I don’t think that film quite knows what kind of comedy it wants to be. There are moments when the film flirts a bit with being a wacky, almost Airplane style comedy. There’s even one moment where Hanks and Watanabe actually pause and stare at the bottom of the screen to read the English subtitles that are translating another character’s dialogue. It seems very out of place since the rest of the film doesn’t really commit to this sort of irreverent style throughout. The film was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who isn’t really known for comedy.
Despite its struggles, I do think Volunteers is a relatively solid comedy. It’s not the strongest film in Hanks’ 80’s resume, but fans of his early comedic work will want to check this one out. Plus, it’s always a treat to see John Candy. Though he’s underused in the film he makes his limited screen time count.