"Volunteers" is a collection of one-liners, mostly good, wrapped around an undeveloped story, generally dull. Despite its frequent glimmers of intelligence, it's an unsatisfactory comedy that yawns to a close.
The story centers on Lawrence Bourne III (Tom Hanks), an heir with airs and a spoiled, callous womanizer; when his father refuses to honor his gambling debt and the gamblers suggest mayhem, Bourne jumps a plane to Thailand. His fellow passengers are volunteers for the newly formed Peace Corps (it's 1962), including Tom Tuttle (John Candy), a rah-rah type, and Beth Wexler (Rita Wilson), an idealist from Long Island. Through the backstairs machinations of his dad, who wants him to grow up, Bourne is yoked into service.
And of course, grow up he does. "Volunteers" is yet another "love heals" harlequinade in which an arrogant wisenheimer, struck by Cupid, realizes that other people matter, while the uptight girl who is responsible learns to laugh and loosen up. The woman's role in such movies offers little -- she's just an audience within the movie -- and Wilson adds little to it.
The role of the man, though, isn't much either -- it rises and falls on the strength of the lines. Essentially, Hanks is called upon to hit the same emotional marks as he did in "Splash"; he's a young fellow so taken with his own misery that he never realizes his self-involvement is the cause of it. But he plays it here with greater aggression, at the cost of warmth, and wastes energy with a lot of ersatz Cary Grant business -- head-weaving and a clipped English accent that he carelessly careens in and out of.
The dialogue, however (by Ken Levine and David Isaacs), is surprisingly clever and erudite, despite the obligatory masturbation jokes. Failing to seduce Beth on the trip overseas, Bourne calls her "just another sexually repressed, guilt-ridden Jewish maid going into the Peace Corps so she can avoid men," and when she slaps him, he answers with a superb double take and a blithe, "What did I say?" There's also a dizzyingly droll sequence of wordplay in which Bourne bollixes up an opium lord's inane syllogism.
The movie's biggest problem is that Bourne never really relates to Beth -- there's no sense of affection as a process. One minute they're at odds, the next in love, and it doesn't help that the elixir that effects this is Coca-Cola, of all things. Bourne never relates to Tuttle, either, so the chemistry between Hanks and Candy never gets a chance to percolate. The pair moved through "Splash" in a kind of waltz: Hanks the winner who thought he was a loser, Candy the loser who thought he was a winner. Without someone to grab on to, Candy gets cutesy, just another unlovable lovable fat man.
Nicholas Meyer directs playfully; when subtitles scroll across the screen, the characters lean over to read them, and when a quintet of soldiers looks through binoculars, he cuts to 10 binocular holes in the screen. But the movie is clumsily paced. Meyer doesn't know how to edit around a laugh line, and the cinematography (by Ric Waite), with its blasted-out white lighting, looks fuzzy and half-finished.
The creaky engine of the plot involves drugs, Communists and the CIA, with all parties involved trying to exploit for their devious purposes a bridge the Peace Corps is building. All are villains, all lumped together; when Candy is brainwashed by the Commies and trades in his gung-holiness for rants against imperialism, the movie says he's simply substituted one silly ideology for another. "Volunteers" is starkly apolitical, a surprise from Meyer, the man who gave us "The Day After"; salvation lies in getting the girl, leaving others alone, and engaging in such Deerfield varsity sports as cigarettes, cards and liquor. It's a sort of "Bridge Over the River Quinine Water." Volunteers, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity and sexual themes.