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[whitespace] 'Cast Away.'
Rocky Times: Tom Hanks hankers for word of the outside world in 'Cast Away.'

Lost at Sea

Tom Hanks is punished with exile for working too hard in 'Cast Away'

By Richard von Busack

REREADING DANIEL DEFOE'S Robinson Crusoe, I was struck by how much of a message it contains. Written in 1719, the novel flatters its middle-class readers in paragraph after paragraph. The book assures them that they have it best, with neither the wants of the poor nor the cares of the rich. Defoe knew his readers in the rising middle class would be the nurturers of the then-new art of the novel, so this praise is no surprise. And Crusoe is punished with exile on a tropical island precisely because he fights joining the middle class. Because Crusoe dreamed of wealth, he embarked on the voyages that shipwrecked him instead of taking the employment that his merchant father promised to find for him. Throughout Robinson Crusoe are the apologies of the castaway, both to his absent father and to God, for disobedience.

The film Cast Away, too, puts its hero, Chuck (Tom Hanks), on an island to punish him. His sin is working on Christmas, though one wonders how a FedEx middle manager is supposed to avoid taking shifts during the busiest season. FedEx is practically a sponsor for the movie. The shipping company is so buttered up with product placements that it even permitted the depiction of one of its planes crashing. This disaster in the South Pacific leaves Chuck the only survivor on a beautiful but empty island.

Crusoe's island had everything he needed for life: herds of goats, grapes, citrus fruit and turtles for food--and cats, a dog and a parrot for companionship. Cast Away, more realistic, gives Chuck only coconuts and fish to eat; it's a bloodier tale, too, and you can tell how bloody it will be when Chuck starts complaining of a bad tooth even before he gets on the fateful plane. (It must be a guaranteed Oscar nomination if you pull your own molars on screen. Nick Nolte in Affliction had the help of whiskey; Hanks, topping him, doesn't even have a pair of pliers.)

As a survival narrative, Cast Away is only a series of incidents. The craft of this castaway is less important than his pining for love. The story's only force is to get Chuck back to his fiancée. Considering the part, Hunt plays it well enough. In one scene, she reaches for her long lost lover with a gentle familiarity that looks heartfelt, but the sight of Hanks Gumping his part up into numbness at the end leaves you hollow.

The mystifying last half hour crushes the audience under a pile of irony, from the way Chuck is forgotten almost as soon as he arrives to the shrimp at the welcome-home buffet. Although stolen from the plot of the classic comedy The Awful Truth, the final scenes are played as drama, featuring Chris Noth as the year 2000's answer to Ralph Bellamy. Significantly, Chuck's only companion on the island is a volleyball, which he names "Wilson" and talks to every day. It's his little pet. Maybe the moral is that all men can really trust are ball games--everything else, including work and women, leads to disappointment.

Cast Away has appeal for an audience that wants to see surf and empty beaches during the dead of winter. But as a reminder of how lucky the middle class is, it fails. The lonely serenity of the beach is never matched with the pleasures of home. All Chuck had was a job haranguing Russian FedEx workers. There's no middle ground between hard, unappreciated white-collar work and a primitive fight for your life. Thus Cast Away unwittingly says more about what it's like to be middle class today than it intended.

Cast Away (PG-13; 143 min.), directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by William Broyles Jr., photographed by Don Burgess and starring Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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