Times Staff Writer

“Nothing in Common” (citywide) starts out like yet another yuppie Tom Hanks comedy--until it takes off in a surprising and unexpectedly rewarding direction. Never has Hanks or Jackie Gleason been better.

Hanks plays young Chicago advertising whiz kid David Basner, so successful that when he returns to the office after a brief Club Med-type vacation, he’s greeted with the kind of fanfare that might be reserved for a visiting celebrity. The noisy, expansive kidding around between Hanks and his co-workers, including his boss (Hector Elizondo)--in perpetual search of the perfect toupee--even continues when they settle down to work.

Then he discovers that his mother (Eva Marie Saint) has left his father (Gleason) after 36 years of marriage. That’s also when we learn just what Basner has put behind him on his fast, never-look-back rise to the top. This definitive preppy type, who could easily pass as an Ivy League graduate, has in fact come from an unhappy, lower-middle-class Chicago home lacking in love and steeped in the father’s moody callousness.


You soon learn why Basner says that parents ought to go off and die. Just when he’s most eager to forget his parents as a couple, he’s suddenly confronted with having to deal with them as individuals.

They begin making their separate demands upon him as he’s concentrating on developing a campaign to land an all-important airline account--and the airline owner’s stunning daughter (Sela Ward). She is a key aide to her blunt, no-nonsense father (Barry Corbin). Basner’s presentation is a satirical highlight, neatly skewering the phony folksiness of so many TV commercials.

For quite some time, perhaps longer than necessary, “Nothing in Common” plays for laughs, even in the initial skirmishing between father and son. It’s as if director Garry Marshall and writers Rick Podell and Michael Preminger feel they must get us hooked on humor before going serious on us, and they do catch us off balance.

They first set up a telling contrast between the life styles of father and son: the son zipping about in zesty luxury, the father growing wearier and wearier--and less and less successful--in his stale rounds as a salesman for a children’s clothing manufacturer, winding up in his bleak, seedy apartment. But as the film’s tone darkens, it asks us--as this father and son finally ask themselves--if they are really so different. The father may be old and hefty and natty and the son young, slim and casual, but in their professions they’re both hucksters, and in their personal lives they’re both compulsive womanizers.

“Nothing in Common” is no polished, flawless work of art; it’s not as stylish or as even as Marshall’s last film, “The Flamingo Kid.” (For one thing, the film has been given an overly dull brown look.)

Its overriding quality is, in fact, doggedness, suggesting a determination on the part of Marshall, a major creative force in TV comedy--”Laverne and Shirley,” “Happy Days,” “Mork and Mindy”--to create something of substance. If this means adhering to conventions, even some overly predictable ones, so be it, for “Nothing in Common” does have a plot that goes somewhere and characters that develop. (Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the mother has been given pretty short shrift; the film is lucky to have the lovely Saint fill in the blanks with her presence and intelligence. Also popping up from time to time is Bess Armstrong, appealing as Hanks’ old girlfriend.)


Where “Nothing in Common” succeeds is in its gradually evolving father-son relationship and the terrific opportunity it affords both actors. By now Hanks could phone in the brash, comical young urban types (to his credit he doesn’t), and it’s good to see he’s capable of moving beyond this to sustain beautifully a growing seriousness.

It’s a commonplace to say that comedians always long to play “Hamlet,” and in its way, “Nothing in Common” gives Gleason a great shot at Willy Loman. He doesn’t cheat, never playing for laughs in his dead-on portrayal of an insensitive, cold-eyed, hard-living man with whom time has caught up. Unlikely as it seems at first, by the end of the film we can even imagine how a much-younger Basner Senior could have swept away his naive, convent-bred wife, only for both of them to live unhappily together ever after.

“Nothing in Common” (rated an appropriate PG) may be as rough around the edges as Gleason’s crumbling salesman, but it does zero in on some home truths.

‘NOTHING IN COMMON’ A Tri-Star Pictures release from Rastar. Executive producer Roger M. Rothstein. Producer Alexandra Rose. Director Garry Marshall. Screenplay Rick Podell, Michael Preminger. Camera John A. Alonzo. Music Patrick Leonard. Production designer Charles Rosen. Costumes Rosanna Norton. Associate producer/second-unit director Nick Abdo. Second-unit camera William Birch. Film editor Glenn Farr. With Tom Hanks, Jackie Gleason, Eva Marie Saint, Hector Elizondo, Barry Corbin, Bess Armstrong, Sela Ward, Cindy Harrell, John Kapelos, Carol Messing.

Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).