When President John F. Kennedy was looking for Peace Corps volunteers, I doubt that he had in mind Lawrence Bourne III (HANKS), a spoiled rich 1962 Yale graduate who owes $28,000 in gambling debts. His father (GEORGE PLIMPTON in a delightful cameo) won't give him the money because it's time irresponsible Lawrence stood on his own two feet, even if they're broken by the bookies:
"You've been a constant source of embarrassment ever since we brought you home from the orphanage."
"Father, I am not adopted. I'm your son."
"Yes I know, but please allow me this little fantasy."
I wish Plimpton had a larger role in this comedy.
This film provides plenty of nostalgia. It opens with JFK urging Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country...", then launches into clips of 1960's newsreels and TV commercials. Castro, Kruschev, the sputnik astronauts, and Marilyn are all there with the Marcels' hit "Blue Moon" playing in the background. Cut to commencement day at Yale. A Kennedy sound-alike is addressing the graduating class as Lawrence listens on his transistor radio to a Celtics-Lakers basketball game that will determine his fate. When the Lakers lose and Dad won't bail him out he trades his expensive sportscar and promiscuous preppie girlfriend for roommate Kent Sutcliffe's identity. Kent, a soil sample expert, has joined the Peace Corps and is about to board a plane at Idlewild airport (now JFK airport) for a remote village in Thailand called Loong Ta.
Bourne knows he made a mistake when he meets boorish Tom Tuttle from Tacoma, Washington (JOHN CANDY), a psychological motivational management major and the president of just about every club in his school (you know the type). Unfortunately Lawrence can't escape him--they've been assigned as hutmates.
Tom Hanks' real-life wife, Rita Wilson, plays Beth Wexler, a Long Island Jewess who has been corresponding with the sensitive, caring Kent. Lawrence seizes the opportunity to seduce her. She's enraged to discover his real identity and motive. "You've just been trying to go to bed with me the whole time!"
"Well we've been mooney-eyed since Istanbul. I think I've put in the hours, don't you?"
(A bit of trivia here: the longest plane ride still is indeed NY to Bangkok, Thailand, about 23 or 24 hours.)
Lawrence makes a favorable impression, however , on At Toon (WATANABE),a village kid who speaks English because he studied at the American school in Bangkok. At helps Larry adjust to jungle life and before long he's teaching the natives the finer points of poker and blackjack.
The mission of the Corps is to build a bridge across the river to enhance life for the villagers who have never stepped foot on the other side. It seems everybody except the villagers wants the bridge built: the opium Lord and black marketeer, the Chinese communists, and a psychotic American agricultural representative named John Reynolds (TIM THOMERSON). Through circumstances that I won't reveal, Lawrence and Tuttle are forced to have the bridge completed in six weeks. (Yes, this film parodies "Bridge on the River Kwai". As Tuttle is guarding the bridge in one scene you'll notice he's whistling "River Kwai's" theme song).
I sure miss John Candy, who died way too young. His talent is showcased in the scene where a brainwashed Tuttle spouts communist propoganda and then with a slap in the face is once again all-American "better dead than red." Although Candy and Hanks are at their best, it's Watanabe's timing and dry humor that made this film a favorite. (You may remember him from "GUNG HO."):
"So what, I die before ever having a woman. I helped build a bridge...some fat guys touched me...I had a full life, Larry!"
"Volunteers" captures the idealism of the period, before anybody dug up dirt on JFK. Young Americans were eager to do his bidding. When Lawrence asks Beth why Kennedy himself "isn't over here helping these people", he gets a bitter "You leave him out of this!"
It won't win any Academy awards (I think Hanks has enough already), but it's a fun comedy. It is also sentimental and patriotic; its theme is clear: maybe the natives are happy the way they are, without a bridge. On a larger scale the message is one that's dear to my own heart--change is NOT always for the better.Return to my movie list