In performing arts schools and training programs, instructors often say that acting is about making big, decisive choices and committing to them totally. This seems like the best way to make sense of Tom Hanks’ outsized supporting turn in the new biopic Elvis as “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis Aaron Presley’s Dutch-born manager and parasitic, gambling-addicted svengali. Among the more puzzling choices made by Hanks: speaking in a vinegary twang that’s sometimes regionally indistinct, sometimes a legible fusion of deep south drawl and lyrical Euro-lilt; donning a prosthetic neck that makes him look like he’s liable to yell at Elvis to “get in my belly”; assuming a lumbering physicality that only grows more pronounced as Colonel Tom prepares to shuffle off his mortal coil in a (probably) metaphorical casino of fate. Having mastered the craft and won all the accolades, he now appears to be motivated primarily by his own amusement, like a video gamer who’s beaten the final boss and moved on to exploring the farthest limits of the virtual world in search of glitches.
As inexplicable as his Colonel Tom may be on a minute-by-minute basis, as a whole, the wild-eyed performance fits squarely within the context of Hanks’s career in its semi-experimental, drastically inconsistent late phase. The last decade has seen one of the planet’s biggest movie stars punctuating stretches of typecast roles with strange and often misbegotten forays into less-familiar territory, to varying degrees of success. He could be getting bored and looking for a novel test of skill, or as an uncharacteristically gruff recent encounter with mobbing fans suggests, he could be developing an edge as he advances through his 60s. Whatever the case, an image forms of a restless ageing expert, torn between excelling in what he’s good at and challenging himself no matter how sparse his success. For someone who’s more than earned the complacency of middle age, his continued unpredictability makes for a cockeyed act of generosity.
Up to this point, Hanks’s screen persona has been easy enough to isolate and define, his filmography well-stocked with various types of decent fellas. His splashy TV arrival in Bosom Buddies, the man-boy blockbusters like Splash and The Money Pit (then made literal by Big), the pivot to Oscar-festooned middlebrow prestige, the romcom era – they’re all united by a foundation of goodness, a red-meat morality that made Hanks impossible to hate even when playing emissary to a faceless corporation bent on flushing out Mom and Pop. With time, he’d graduate from America’s best pal, always ready with a cold beer and pick-me-up speech, to America’s dad, Atticus Finch with comedic timing. In a 2011 cameo as himself on 30 Rock, he’s seen spending his nights singing to himself and knitting in front of a television set to a low, gentle volume.
But his path hooked away from a future of porridge and prune juice in the 2010s, and split into an intriguing network of forks. He hasn’t parted ways with the Hanks we’ve come to cherish, though recent invocations of his good-guy typecasting have taken on fresh inflections. The one-time savior of Private Ryan spent much of the decade upholding the American way of life, whether by brokering peace (as in Bridge of Spies, Captain Phillips and News of the World, the latter taking him to a coarser register), defending the truth (as in The Post), and fighting for individual freedoms against the evils of big government oversight (as in Sully, though he’s more subordinate to director Clint Eastwood’s ideology). The squeaky-cleanest entries come close to parody of this tendency, though such physical embodiments of childhood purity as Walt Disney and Fred Rogers would be ultimately played straight by their attendant scripts.