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Missing that next-door guy

FILM CRITIC

I miss Tom Hanks.

Not the one you can find in theaters everywhere now in “Angels & Demons,” a film on its way to something close to blockbuster status in no small part due to Hanks as a Harvard symbologist on the trail of a Vatican killer.

And I don’t begrudge him “Angels & Demons” either, with a payday rumored from $30 million to $50 million. Whether it’s funding some of his other creative dreams or just putting another wing on the house really is beside the point. Hanks has gotten to where he is on the merit system, so he deserves whatever freight Hollywood will pay.

But I do long for a different Tom Hanks, the one who feels like he’s gone missing in recent years. The actor in whose eyes you could see absolute wonder and joy in “Big,” absolute humanity and compassion in “Forrest Gump,” extraordinary pain and resolve in “Philadelphia,” loss and love in “Sleepless in Seattle.” Silly, heartbreaking, sentimental -- all just a part of what I think of as the essential Hanks.

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Solitude should be there too.

In small bits and large, Hanks does some of his best work alone: his late-night lament to the radio psychologist in “Sleepless,” his conversation at Jenny’s grave in “Forrest Gump.” If you’re thinking, well, sure, but every actor has those moments, remember the shape of his performance in “Cast Away.” Hanks spent roughly a third of the movie’s 2 hours, 23 minutes alone on a tropical island, creating a symphony of silence; separate movements of desperation, despair and finally acceptance of his solitary confinement, a volleyball named Wilson his only companion. Even all of “Wall-E’s” animated excellence and its first long minutes without dialogue couldn’t come close.

Where is the hero and the stand-up guy we knew we could count on even before he made those movies? “The Apollo 13" Hanks? The “Saving Private Ryan” Hanks? The one we would follow into battle; the one who would get us back home. Even his ruthless hit man-father in “Road to Perdition,” one of the darkest characters Hanks has done, was played with such a steady hand that you trusted him to do the right thing when it mattered. How much do we believe in Hanks? He was No. 1 on Forbes’ list of most trusted celebrities in 2006, the last time the magazine checked, even beating out Oprah.

The Tom Hanks of those movies seems all but lost to us now.

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If Hanks seems stranded at the moment, in need of reinvention, he is not alone. Consider his fiftysomething contemporaries -- Alec Baldwin, 51; Bill Paxton, 54; Jeff Daniels, 54; Bill Pullman, 55; John Travolta, 55; Bruce Willis, 54; Denzel Washington, 54; Bill Murray, 58; Dennis Quaid, 55; Ed Harris, 58; Mel Gibson, 53; Kevin Costner, 54; Kevin Bacon, 50; John Malkovich, 55 -- some have migrated with great success to TV, others have the occasional studio project, some spend time on Broadway, others have shifted focus to independent film, still others bankroll their own projects.

Still, I wonder why Hanks isn’t getting better movies? It should be his time. He’s our Jimmy Stewart, a heartland guy, good people. As a reader recently put it to me, Hanks remains one of “Hollywood’s gentler souls.” That is his sweet spot, it’s what most moviegoers love about him. Edging toward 53, Hanks is the boy next door grown into an ordinary Joe of a man that we could imagine talking T-ball, crab grass and the trouble with the Dodgers over the backyard fence.

But Hollywood doesn’t make gentle movies much anymore. Instead of the hope of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” we have the cynicism of “Charlie Wilson’s War.” There were flashes of an inspired Hanks to be found inside that good-old-boy Texas congressman -- hard liquor in one hand, a pliable woman in the other -- but he was never quite able to jump into the muddy water at the deep end of that pool.

He’s got, as my mom would say, a nice face, open and honest. Eyes that look at you straight on; a smile that doesn’t miss life’s ironies but doesn’t relish them either; a wiry build that’s become more substantial over the years. What he doesn’t have is the swooning looks of a Brad Pitt or George Clooney; the chiseled hardness of Tom Cruise; the defiant aloneness of Denzel Washington; the crazed passion of Mel Gibson; or the eclectic dramatic moves of Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr.

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A problem of age?

So is it Hollywood then, or Hanks? Probably a bit of both.

The passing years have moved him into acting’s Middle-earth, just shy of hell, that place between headlining a movie and the rich character standing slightly left of center stage. That’s not to say he can’t do both. It’s just that the rules of the town, the market metrics, are more interested in another “Angels & Demons” than in “Saving Private Ryan.”

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It’s a hard spot. The actor is still a big movie star, still busy, still averaging 13 movies a decade as he has since the 1980s. He’s a recognized talent with two Oscars and countless other awards for his wide-ranging work across comedy and drama; he received the AFI Lifetime Achievement award at 46, the youngest person to do so. As significant to the studios, he has proven economic power -- the domestic box-office take for his films up to “Angels & Demons” was roughly $3.3 billion. And as “Angels & Demons” has proven once again, he’s nearly as strong overseas.

But the very qualities that make Hanks one of our most beloved actors may be part of his undoing. There is a modesty to his work that makes room for those around him; a restraint even with high concepts like “Big” that make it easy to take him for granted. The light touch he has with comedy stretching to his days as a cross-dressing college student in “Bosom Buddies”; the empathy that slips into his darkest characters like those Christmas Eve phone calls between his tough-as-nails FBI agent and Leo DiCaprio’s con artist in “Catch Me if You Can.” The remarkable made believable.

Maybe the actor has simply grown tired of the movie game. He’s certainly not creatively dry, having a hand in producing some of television’s most ambitious projects, including the extraordinary performance piece that is HBO’s “Big Love” and miniseries that embody high-minded quality: “John Adams,” “Band of Brothers” and “From the Earth to the Moon.”

Occasionally he tries his hand behind the camera, directing (and writing) an episode on his TV projects here and there as well as the campy, frothy fun of “That Thing You Do!” about a ‘60s-era one-hit pop band. He’s dropped into a few smaller movies, cameos for friends and relations. And maybe there’s something in development that will allow him to be exceptional again.

But second acts are always the hardest, the meat of a movie, a career, a life. I hope for a strong one from Hanks. I miss him. You know the one I mean.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com


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