Second Glance: In Praise of Garry Marshall’s ‘Nothing in Common’

Garry Marshall's best film - 30 years old this week - is an expert mix of comedy and drama, and a hint at the career ahead of Tom Hanks.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of its release, and the recent passing of director Garry Marshall, we spotlight the 1986 comedy/drama Nothing in Common.

We’d already slotted Nothing in Common for this column, creeping up as we are on the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release (July 30, 1986), before the death of director Garry Marshall last week, but it’s a fitting tribute to his gifts as a filmmaker – gifts that were often easy to overlook in light of the, well, questionable quality of his late-career output. Yet there are some movies that can forgive a lifetime of sins, so for every torpid holiday-themed ensemble comedy or retrograde rom-com, I always found myself thinking, “Yes, but Nothing in Common.”

Tom Hanks and Sela Ward in "Nothing in Common"

It is, in some ways, a fairly unexceptional mid-‘80s studio movie, unequivocally of its time – the slick pop soundtrack, the numerous montages to said soundtrack, the ho-ho sexual politics, etc. Maybe there’s nothing all that special about it; perhaps this viewer was merely pushed into misplaced affection thanks to its numerous HBO and Cinemax showings in the back half of the decade. (And I do mean numerous – they ran it a lot.) But I don’t think so. There’s a lot about Nothing in Common that transcends its sleek surfaces: director Marshall taking his first crack at serious subject matter; star Tom Hanks, similarly stretching his persona in his first major role with significant dramatic beats; co-star Eva Marie Saint, in a performance of quiet power; and co-star Jackie Gleason, heartbreaking in his final screen turn.

Hanks stars as David Basner, a hotshot Chicago ad exec (very ‘80s movie job) and unabashed ladies’ man – the yuppie, personified. In one of his first scenes, Marshall’s camera follows Hanks as he returns to his agency after a business trip, riffing on his co-workers and cracking wise, and it’s an effective introduction. We immediately get a sense that this is a guy who thinks fast, talks fast, and is all but impossible to dislike; in other words, it’s your archetypal early Hanks protagonist. Revisiting the movie aware of where it’s going, it’s a pretty clever bait-and-switch – Marshall and screenwriters Rick Podell and Michael Preminger are letting us think we’re walking into a typical Hanks comedy, and then they disassemble and reassemble the movie around him.

Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks in "Nothing in Common"

The first sign that we’re not just getting a PG-13 About Last Night comes when his father Max (Gleason) calls to inform David that his mother Lorraine (Saint) has walked out on him, after 36 years of marriage. He finds his mother in a far more serious movie, informing him, “It took every ounce of courage I could muster to walk out that door.” The casting of an actor of Saint’s force (and history) is key; she can put across Lorraine’s agony, her years of suffering, in a glance.

But the surprise of the picture is Gleason. In an early scene, he’s referred to as “Max Basner, the last of the old-time salesmen,” and you quickly get the impression that his time is up. He works for oily, yuppie weasels, who end up firing him a few scenes later, at a big public event; Marshall holds on the actor’s face, on his devastation, and then shows him stuffing it down into his gut, so he can puff a cigar and wave confidently at an old associate across the room. There’s gravitas to his work here, to the charisma and heft he carries into each scene, and to his choice not to play the character for easy sympathy. We know how destroyed he must be – what is this man, without his work and his marriage? – but he digs in, stubbornly, when confronted by his son for his treatment of his wife. “I gave her food and clothes for 37 years,” he growls. “I did pretty good.

Podell and Preminger’s script is busy – perhaps a bit too busy, juggling subplots about David’s work with a big new account, his strained relationship with that company’s CEO (the wonderfully cranky Barry Corbin), his wooing of that CEO’s daughter (Sela Ward, great as ever), and his complicated relationship with the old girlfriend who he should clearly be with (Bess Armstrong, warm and sunny and terrific). But the pulling of the screenplay’s many strands has the desired effect on David, and on Hanks’s performance; he goes from a cool customer to a bundle of stress and nerves, and Hanks pulls off a turn to the serious parallel to the film’s. This was his first swing for drama, and it lands; his fierce late-night fight with Gleason, and a subsequent boardroom shouting match with the client, show depths he’d merely hinted at. (Following the latter, Ward offers up a bit of meta-commentary: “That was quite the performance.”)

Jackie Gleason in "Nothing in Common"

On a recent (and great) WTF appearance, Marshall explained how they got the reluctant Gleason to do the movie – he wasn’t well, and Marshall reminded him that if he went, his final movie would’ve been Smokey and the Bandit 3. It is, to be sure, a legacy performance, with some of the finest acting of his career, and it often comes between the lines. His final scene with Saint has remarkable work from both actors, as they slide from strained politeness to quiet affection to barely contained tension; it ultimately goes south, and when his charge that her love for him was “bullshit” forces her deliberate exit, he’s left to sit in what he’s wrought. Gleason turns off his tiny bedside light – a perfect touch – and goes to pieces. It’s hard to watch, in the best way; it’s an actor in total command of his instrument.

The Basner boys are finally forced to mend their fences by David’s discovery that his father is suffering from a diabetic condition that he’s let go for far too long; it sounds hack, and maybe it is, but the looks they exchange when David sees his dad’s feet – shock on the son’s face, shame on the father’s – pack a real wallop. This narrative turn is extra poignant, considering how ill Gleason was himself (he died about a year after the film’s release). But the movie knows how extreme circumstances can push us out of the boxes we hide in. Just before his potentially life-saving surgery, David jokes, “I coulda been a great doctor,” and Max replies, in all seriousness, “You could’ve been a great anything,” and it’s got weight; you can tell, by the way he says it and the way his son hears it, that’s it’s not only something he’s never heard before, but something he’s needed to hear for a long time.

Nothing in Common’s small but significant box office success kicked off a strange mini-movement of movies about yuppies coming to terms with their dying dads: Billy Crystal co-wrote and co-starred with Alan King in 1988’s long-forgotten (but not half bad) Memories of Me, while Ted Danson paired off with Jack Lemmon in Dad the following year. But it wasn’t just imitation; these movies seemed to speak to a real subconscious need in the period, as the go-go ‘80s wound down and gave way to the sensitive ‘90s, to tell stories that had something to do with the pursuit of happiness rather than the pursuit of wealth – and the idea that those ideas might be mutually exclusive. There’s a lot about Nothing in Common that hasn’t aged well (I haven’t even talked about the horse-breeding scene), and a lot about it that’s easy to cynically dismiss. But if you can watch that last scene, and Gleason’s last line in particular, without fogging up a little bit… well, I don’t wanna know you.