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Tom Hanks and Ron Howard: Nice Guys Finish First

Tom is nice. Ron is nice. Tom and Ron work in a place called Hollywood which isn’t always nice, but Tom and Ron are. Long ago they made a movie called “Splash,” and it was nice. Then they made a movie called “Apollo 13,” and it was nice. Everyone liked these movies and everyone liked Tom and Ron. But then a man wrote a story that some people liked and some people didn’t like. How could Hollywood make a movie from this story? They asked Tom and Ron to do it! Who would object to Tom and Ron? Both were so nice!

OK, sorry for the first-grade reader language. Something about these guys suggests it.

Let me start over.

Every 11 years

“The Da Vinci Code” is the third film Academy Award-winner Ron Howard has made with Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks, and in each of these films the two icons have helped one another.

When Hanks was still a TV actor, mostly known for the well-received but short-lived sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” Howard chose him for his first starring role, “Splash,” and helped make him a star. Eleven years later, when Howard’s attempts to graduate to serious movies for grown-ups (“Backdraft,” “Far and Away,” “The Paper”) hadn’t fared as well as Hanks’ likewise attempts (“Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump”), it was Hanks’ turn to help Howard. He starred in “Apollo 13” and helped make Howard a big-time director of adult dramas.

It’s 11 years later again and both men could use the help of the other. After the financial and critical success of “A Beautiful Mind,” Howard made “The Missing,” a good Tommy Lee Jones western that did OK business for a western ($27 million domestic) but not for a Ron Howard film. He followed it up with “Cinderella Man,” which was probably mishandled by the studio. A fall movie, it was released in the heat of summer and wilted, making $61 million domestic and garnering little awards attention at the end of the year.

Hanks, meanwhile, has been peeling off $100 million films like lesser men peel off five dollar bills. From “Forrest Gump” (July ’94) to “Catch Me If You Can” (December ’02), every movie he starred in made over $100 million domestic. All got big releases (2,000+ theaters) during the prime movie months (June/July, November/December).

Then he took a risk and made “The Ladykillers” which was marketed as a Coen Brothers movie rather than a Tom Hanks movie (a March release in 1,500 theaters). Though Hanks was delicious as a comically insufferable con man, the film was slammed as somehow unworthy of either Hanks or the Coens and didn’t make $40 million. More surprising was the box office results for “The Terminal,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg and received the usual Hanks/Spielberg fanfare: a June release in nearly 3,000 theaters. It didn’t even manage $80 million domestic. For a Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg movie? That’s almost a sign of the Apocalypse.

Of course Hanks and Howard are still near the top of the Hollywood power structure, but there will be talk if the two of them can’t make a hit out of one of the biggest-selling books of all time.

Basic instincts

I’m a fan of both men, by the way. “The Andy Griffith Show” is one of the most underrated sitcoms in TV history and, for anyone who grew up in the 1970s, “Happy Days” was iconic (I was a Richie always looking for a Fonzie but generally finding the Malachi Brothers). I also loved the comedy and camaraderie in the short-lived “Bosom Buddies” and was bummed when it was canceled but assumed Peter Scolari would go on to bigger things. I felt kind of sorry for the curly headed guy. What could he possibly do?

It was Howard’s assistant, Louisa Velis, who repeatedly told Howard to look at Hanks for “Splash.” “This guy Tom Hanks,” Howard recalls her saying, “you gotta meet him. He’s great, he’s funny, he’s charming.”

“Splash” was a hard movie to cast. Bigger names — Herbert Ross and Warren Beatty — were interested in making their own mermaid movie, and not many name-brands in Hollywood were willing to take on such giants for little Opie Cunningham. Howard, out of necessity but to his credit, went with Hanks after he nailed the audition. He thought, “Well, nobody’s going to go to a Tom Hanks movie. But if you just care about casting the role, you couldn’t get anyone better.”

I love that. Nobody’s going to go to a Tom Hanks movie. More directors should trust their gut this way. Moviegoers don’t necessarily know what they want until they want it. Or see it. Marketers, please please please pay attention.

Hanks trusted his instincts as well. There’s a scene in the movie where Allen Bauer (Hanks), unable to find Madison (Daryl Hannah), rushes out of his apartment and pushes both banks of elevators and then stands in the middle of the lobby, arms out, waiting for the first ding. It was a little detail that Hanks insisted on and Howard decided to indulge him, figuring. what the hell, he’d probably cut it in editing. But the scene tested well. In fact there were 8 or 9 instances when Hanks’ instincts were right on the mark and Howard remembers thinking, “If I ever work with this guy again I’m going to trust him more.”

He did. There’s a great early scene in “Apollo 13” when a party crowd is watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Most of the partygoers look happy and amazed that we’re doing this great thing, but Howard noticed Hanks, as astronaut Jim Lovell, doing something else and zeroed in on him. In the film Lovell looks like a man thinking: That should’ve been me. It lent authority to the following scene when Lovell unbelievably lists the great explorers: Christopher Columbus, Charles Lindbergh ... and Neil Armstrong? It should’ve been me. It’s the edge the film needed.

Everyone’s All-American

Hanks and Howard have a lot in common. Beyond reps for niceness and TV sitcom backgrounds, both were raised in southern California, have long, stable marriages (31 years for Howard, 18 years for Hanks) and a couple of adult children in the business (Bryce Dallas Howard and Colin Hanks). You could say that between them they represent an iconic arc of All-American malehood. Howard played the All-American kid (Opie in the 1960s) and the All-American teenager (Richie in the 1970s), while Hanks has played the All-American young male (his 1980s comedies) and the All-American man (his 1990s dramas).

But, of the two, Hanks always felt darker. Lord knows he has layers of charm, but beneath those, every once in a while, you glimpse something hard and unforgiving and driven, with little time for the social niceties that Howard, even in his 50s, pays subservience to. Howard needs this darkness in his leading man — whether it’s Hanks or Russell Crowe or Michael Keaton — or his films feel too light.

In his recent Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire, Howard says the most overrated virtue is “trendiness” and the trait he most deplores in himself is “emotional reliance on other people’s approval,” and these two answers, particularly the brutally honest second one, help define his moviemaking style. He’s basically an old studio hand, making old-fashioned movies with the audience’s old-fashioned sensibilities in mind. There’s a scene in “Splash” when Allen and Madison first return to his apartment and head up the elevator, but the camera stays shyly in the lobby. It pans up to the floor indicator, which stops between the third and fourth floors; then the scene bashfully, sweetly fades. It’s a 1930s moment in a 1980s film, and that sensibility is as responsible for the success of that film, and Howard’s career, as Hanks’ charm.

Yeah yeah, but how is ‘The Da Vinci Code’?

All of which is to say: Ron Howard has always been good at the sweet and the bashful but he’s never been particularly good at challenging our shared assumptions; so, despite the first-grade reader logic at the beginning of this article, he seems like the last guy to make a movie out of “The Da Vinci Code,” which challenges the greatest shared assumption in the history of the western world. How does he handle it?

Twenty minutes into “The Da Vinci Code” I thought: He’s blown it. The rhythm of the movie is off: chase scenes aren’t thrilling or urgent enough, while expository scenes, which should allow us to breathe, feel too rushed and hectic. The rhythm everywhere is an awkward middle ground.

Hanks blows it, too. As in “Road to Perdition,” he muzzles his considerable charm only to arrive at a blank state. He has zero chemistry with Audrey Tautou, and he and the movie don’t spring to life until Ian McKellan turns up to show us what fun is. Paul Bettany’s Silas, meanwhile, is the most sympathetic character in the film. You know there’s trouble when you care most about a murderous albino monk.

As for the great challenge to our shared assumptions? Howard handles it all in a soothing rather than a revelatory way. “Hey, just because of this, doesn’t mean that.” It’s another awkward middle ground. Basically I agree with him — just because this, doesn’t mean that — but it’s such an obvious attempt to soothe the absolutists of the world that it comes off as a pat on the head, soothing no one. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be nice.

Here’s my own awkward middle ground. I liked the art history and the biblical theory in the film — Lord knows Americans could use more of both — and because I’d just watched Howard’s first directorial effort, “Grand Theft Auto,” I got to revel in how far as a director Ronnie Howard has come: from filming at a demolition derby to filming in the Louvre. He also got tears to well up in my eyes near the end, the bastard. But “The Da Vinci Code” is still a disappointment for both men.

Every 11 years. I guess we’ll have to wait until 2017 to see what they do next.

—Erik Lundegaard misses Donna Dixon. This piece was originally published 5/18/2006 on MSNBC.com.