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Tom Hanks Needs a Reboot: Why America’s Favorite Actor Is Playing It Too Safe

"The Circle" is the latest example of how the actor is misusing his talent.

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks

Shutterstock

No actor embodies the American everyman more than Tom Hanks, but that archetype has worn awfully thin. He was ideal as Cpt. Sully Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” a valiant working-class hero who always does the right thing — but at one of the most polarizing moments in this country’s history, roles like like start to seem less hand-in-glove and more like a rut. However, the actor’s earlier credits prove that a much broader range lurks beneath his kindly demeanor, and he’s overdue to unleash that potential once more.

In “The Circle,” which opens today, he plays a scheming tech mogul whose charm belies his nefarious vision. The problem is the material doesn’t give him enough substance. The movie finds one of the character’s young employees (Emma Watson) drawn into the company’s live-video platform even as it holds the potential for widespread invasion of privacy and Hanks is relegated to a side character whose cheery presentations about the platform obscure its creepier connotations. He never gets the opportunity to transform the figure into the 21st-century villain the story suggests.

Hanks’ bland, smiling delivery has subversive potential, but “The Circle” is a tonally confused work, caught between satire and sincerity in a jumble of half-formed ideas written by luddites. For Hanks to truly push beyond his safety zone, he’ll need some higher standards.

“The Circle”

In his ’90s heyday, the actor showed a tremendous ability to channel his likable persona into smart, unpredictable narratives. From the fantasy of “Big” to the socially conscious storytelling of “Philadelphia,” Hanks tackled one risky project after another and grounded it with subtle, intelligent performances. While “Forrest Gump” may have grown divisive with time, it remains a completely unorthodox and innovative work of cultural storytelling, and his disarmingly sweet delivery fuses it all together.

In the next decade, Hanks entered a more elegant, classical phase. His collaborations with Steven Spielberg, from “Saving Private Ryan” all the way through “Bridge of Spies,” harken back to an earlier era of slick Hollywood productions focused on mature dilemmas. (He’s got another one right around the corner with Spielberg’s untitled Pentagon Papers drama, in which Hanks plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.) But even the best of these movies have a neutral currency in modern times — they go down easy, but fall short of introducing big ideas. Other Hanks credits suggest he does want to expand his reach; it’s just that he has terrible aim.

“The Circle” marks the actor’s second go-round with a Dave Eggers adaptation, following on the heels of the misbegotten “A Hologram For the King.” That one found Hanks as a melancholic business man trapped in the limbo of a never-ending business trip in Saudi Arabia. Though it contained a degree of whimsy usually absent from modern-day Hanks movies, it was another case of subtly dark material (in this case, the corrosive impact of corporate life on a soul-searching everyman) squandered by a light touch.

Tom Hanks in “Sully”

Warner Bros.

Hanks has the right idea in aligning with a creative voice operating outside of the Hollywood safety zone; he just needs some help with the curatorial process. Just imagine what might happen if the actor teamed up with Olivier Assayas, whose collaborations with Kristen Stewart on “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper” brought the actress’ talent into an exciting new arena of sophisticated narratives about inner turmoil. Hanks could also attach himself to a project from a masterful director fighting to get more projects off the ground, like David Cronenberg, who hasn’t been able to cobble together resources for a movie in years.

The actor’s name carries weight, and it would better serve contemporary cinema if he sought a career stage defined by surprise choices. He’d be a great fit for an economical director of humanistic comedies like Lynn Shelton, and could turn his everyman status on its ear by inserting himself into the unnerving visions of social rebellion crafted by Andrea Arnold.

Of course, the very idea of a middle-aged white guy holding such currency in today’s entertainment industry is questionable. However, Hanks provides a special case. He’s an iconic figure with the capacity to influence how movies achieve stature in popular culture, and he’s certainly worked hard at it. But if that’s going to continue, he’s going to need something better than “The Circle.”

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