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Solitary Refinement

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000


    'Cast Away' He ain't Moses and he ain't Richard Hatch: He's Tom Hanks in "Cast Away."
(20th Century Fox)
I'm happy to inform you that the fat bearded guy spearing fish in "Cast Away" is not Richard Hatch.

It's Tom Hanks, playing a Federal Express inspector marooned on a remote island. He's not trying to win a million bucks or vote people off the island. He's just building fires, dreaming of returning to mainland USA and having extended conversations with a volleyball.

That's right. As the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Pacific, Chuck Noland (Hanks) is pretty much stuck for company. Breaking open a washed-up FedEx package, he pulls out the ball and finds himself a pneumatic buddy.

He paints a face on the ball (with a little blood), places it on a rock and calls it Wilson. (Speaking of product placement, you never met a nicer group of folks than the folks who work for FedEx in this movie. Chuck even refers to the company slogan of "absolutely, positively overnight.") Chuck's round little pal presides benevolently over him as he learns to make fire and builds that inevitable raft outta there.

Wilson also gives Chuck – and the movie audience – a welcome alternative to the crashing silence of this remote place. And let's be honest, Hanks isn't going to secure an Oscar nomination by just grunting and spitting out fishbones.

With a giveaway title like "Cast Away," we know where this movie is heading. Which makes the prelude (when Hanks is at his tubbiest) enjoyably fraught with destiny. When we meet him, he's en route to a Russian field office to urge employees to avoid the "sin of losing track of time."

It's clear he's an automaton. Even his engagement to Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) seems like a mere coefficient of his work/play schedule. He needs a life lesson – including romantic deprivation from Kelly. (And besides, Helen Hunt needs time to be in all those other movies she appears in this year.) When Chuck promises his fiancee he'll be back in time for New Year's Eve, it's time for mental head shaking. No Auld Lang Syne for you this year, buddy. Or the next, or the . . .

Well, how long does this involuntary sojourn take? There are only so many surprises to this movie; it would be a sin to tell you.

Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. do a great job of keeping the cut-and-dried formula from, well, getting too cut and dried. Instead of rushing through that plane crash, for instance, they show us memorable detail. When Chuck floats alone in the Pacific, he has to engage an overturned raft, then avoid a still-revving turbo jet that's chewing up the flotsam and jetsam like a metal shark. There's a wonderful moment at sea, much later, when Chuck encounters a whale as it watches him with one, intense eye. And before Chuck starts that relationship with Wilson, Zemeckis makes a regular symphony out of the wild sounds of surf and wind.

But most of the credit for keeping our attention goes to the island boy. If there's anyone who can make this ordeal – and when you're plumb out of characters, it can be an ordeal – tolerable, and even entertaining, it's Hanks. Despite the seriousness of the situation (the possibility of dying alone and stranded) he fills his scenes with a certain cheery determination. Anyone who can spike poignancy from a volleyball is more than doing his job. And Hanks's natural affinity for comedy can't help but poke through. When he's aware, for the first time, that he's probably alone on this island, he hears mysterious crashes. One after the other. Eventually, he can't stand it any longer. "What is that?" he yells. And despite the tension of the scene, it's a very funny moment – a sort of amusing, strangled squawk from a yuppie who's coming to terms with losing control. And that pulls us even deeper into the story.

"Cast Away" (PG-13, 148 minutes) – Contains an emotionally traumatic plane crash, urination, defecation and bloody injuries.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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