In Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis' most fully satisfying work in ages, Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a FedEx engineer for whom the world can't move fast enough; he's obsessed with time-saving, whether it be with associates in Moscow or friends at home. Before boarding a plane for a business conference, he even goes so far as to give his girlfriend (Helen Hunt) a wrapped engagement ring, instructing her to open it when he returns. (He saves lead-in time on its actual presentation.) But somewhere over the Pacific, the plane crashes (in one of cinema's most terrifying airplane disasters), and Chuck is washed up on a deserted island with little hope of escape or rescue; suddenly, he has all the time in the world, and the film, which had previously been lightning quick, slows down to a crawl.
This is where the film's magic truly begins. Chuck now has to learn to survive, and Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. have no qualms about taking their time to show us how he succeeds. For almost an hour, the film is nearly wordless as Chuck learns how to make fire, harpoon fish, and get milk out of a coconut, and if this sounds dull, be assured that the filmmaking team and the astonishing Hanks have found a way to make Cast Away feel like the least boring movie of the year. They've used Hanks' natural boyishness to uncannily good effect; he seems like a child born into a new world, and the looks of hurt and disappointment and triumph in his eyes are more dramatic than any "story" the movie could offer. Hanks' eyes are the story.
The filmmakers have even given him a child's toy - a volleyball that washes ashore in one of many FedEx packages that occasionally surface (a screenwriting conceit that works remarkably well). Chuck paints a face on the ball, in blood, and dubs it Wilson, after its manufacturer. Wilson becomes Chuck's only friend on the island, and it allows him to converse to keep from losing his mind. One could argue, of course, that having conversations with a volleyball is proof positive that you have lost your mind, but in Hanks' hands the ensuing relationship is incredibly poignant. When Chuck throws Wilson out of his cave after an "argument," a scene that should be pathetically comic quickly becomes emotionally devastating. No kidding.
It's to the immense credit of the Cast Away crew that what could have been, in lesser hands, the most sickly element in their story turns out to be their trump card (and a coup for Hanks; it turns out this very fine actor has wellsprings of madness and paranoia in his palette as well). Cast Away's island scenes are endlessly exciting because they have purpose; as much as you enjoy Chuck's invention (among the contents of the FedEx packages are a pair of ice skates, an evening gown, and a batch of videotapes, all of which, à la MacGyver, Chuck uses as survival tools), you long for him to get home, and whenever he hits a snag you feel the pain; audiences, by now, are so conditioned to empathize with Hanks that his every setback feels like our setback. And Zemeckis and Broyles have smartly avoided any "Meanwhile, back in the States ... " cross-cutting; once you're on the island, you're stuck. Cast Away represents something of a minor filmmaking miracle; it has taken a character's torturous circumstances and woven them into something wholly entertaining.
Best of all, its messages are left deliberately ambiguous. Of course, there's a side to the film that advises us all to stop and smell the roses, because we don't know how much time we have left, yada yada yada, but thankfully, this nugget of wisdom doesn't turn Chuck into a sap. Late in the film, the childlike wonder in Hanks' eyes has given way to something harder, an awareness that life itself might be meaningless; there's still hope there, but it's distilled with terror and bluntness - he's been through hell, and isn't about to do it again. It would have been enough if Cast Away's filmmakers had given us a rollicking adventure saga, as it would have if they had merely provided a role for Tom Hanks that played off his best instincts and showed us new sides to his gifts. For a movie to do both is rather extraordinary.
THE FAMILY MAN
The themes and morals in Cast Away are accepted and catalogued without any fuss. In The Family Man, all you get are themes and morals, and you get them over and over again until you start to feel woozy. In general, you should try to avoid any movie that wants to turn you into a better person, but you should especially avoid it when the movie is about wealthy people learning "deeper values." Hollywood's idea of "bettering" people is to pander to their staunchest middle-class beliefs: The rich are venal, superficial and soulless; they think they're happy but they're not; and the joys of a Ferrari and an unlimited expense account are nothing compared to the harried thrill of taking your kid to ballet class and wiping up your infant's poop. A hackneyed attempt at It's a Wonderful Life-style significance, The Family Man turns into a traditional Hollywood apology movie - "We may be rich and super-powerful, but you people are the true heroes, because money hasn't corrupted you."
Nicolas Cage stars as a Wall Street lothario who magically sees what life would have been like if he had married his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni) and lived the simple life in New Jersey, and with the exception of some relaxed kidding around between the leads, there's not a believable moment in the movie. The director, Brett Ratner, pitches nearly every scene too high and pours on the schmaltzy music each time Cage learns that Money Can't Buy Happiness (which happens a lot in two very long hours). He throws in one of those "adorable" little Hollywood moppets that pronounce an R like a W so often that you pray for something heavy to fall on her. And he misses something that causes the entire film to crash: Nicolas Cage is a lot more enjoyable as an ultra-rich snob than he is as a sensitive hubby and father; the film is at its best when Cage performs double-takes at the sheer tackiness of his new, "family man" wardrobe. And before the transformation, Cage doesn't even come off as a bad guy; he works his butt off, entertains his co-workers, has mutually fulfilling sexual relationships (in which, on the evidence we receive, no one gets hurt), and foils a convenience-store hold-up with his wits. Why does Hollywood feel it necessary to punish him? Oh right ... deeper values.