The oddest part of Volunteers is the opening credits. I queued it because I’ve been reading Ken Levine’s blog (he’s one of the screenwriters) and he did a whole write-up on it a while ago. I suppose I knew, but had forgotten, Nicholas Meyer directed the film. Volunteers is his follow-up to Star Trek II, which would have been considered a success for him. He even brought James Horner along from Star Trek to score Volunteers. James Horner should not score comedies (though he does use some of his other material, I think from Star Trek and Aliens, in the film).
Since Meyer brings nothing to the film, all the responsibility falls on Tom Hanks, who does the whole film with an exaggerated New England accent. He manages to keep the accent for the whole film too. The film takes place in 1962, just after Kennedy started the Peace Corps–I missed that detail somehow, I just thought they were showing the old film clips over the titles to be historical–and I’m wondering if my misunderstanding affected the first twenty minutes. The first twenty minutes are mildly amusing. Tom Hanks is acting like a prick, which he’s very good at doing, but nothing really made me laugh. Then, once he gets to Thailand–maybe just on the Peace Corps plane–Volunteers starts getting funny. It might have more to do with John Candy. Candy is good in Volunteers, better than anything else I’ve ever seen him in. Still, he’s not the best supporting cast member–Gedde Watanabe is great.
Since I saw the film for Levine, I suppose I do have to say something about the writing. It’s good and funny. There are quite a few laugh out-loud moments in Volunteers–most of Watanabe’s lines for a forty minute period are real funny–and the film’s never predictable in the story progressions, with the regular exception of the romance between Hanks and Rita Wilson. The film’s become a footnote in Hanks’ biography for that reason. She’s not good, but it hardly matters, the film isn’t interested in her character. The funny stuff is going on elsewhere.
Even with the traditional romance story-arc, Volunteers ends on an unexpected note, managing to stay truer to itself than expected. The film’s humor isn’t irreverent–Levine and co-writer David Isaacs are sitcom writers who write for good shows–but it is a referential humor. One would need to know, for example, about the CIA’s activities in East Asia, which might not have been too much to ask in 1985, but certainly is too much today. Hanks’ performance is also so unlike his regular performances (he only had a few years before he found his shtik) doesn’t help its accessibility either. Still, there’s no excuse for its bad reputation. It actually needed to be longer–Levine and Isaacs set up a few jokes they never finished and could have….
Directed by Nicholas Meyer; screenplay by Ken Levine and David Isaacs, from a story by Keith Critchlow; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Ronald Roose and Steven Polivka; produced by Richard Shepherd and Walter F. Parkes; released by Tri-Star Pictures.
Starring Tom Hanks (Lawrence Whatley Bourne III), John Candy (Tom Tuttle), Rita Wilson (Beth Wexler), Tim Thomerson (John Reynolds), Gedde Watanabe (At Toon), George Plimpton (Lawrence Bourne Jr.), Ernest Harada (Chung Mee), Allan Arbus (Albert Bardenaro) and Xander Berkeley (Kent Sutcliffe).