Directed by: Tom Hanks
Runtime: 99 min.
Cast: Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne), Julia Roberts (Mercedes Tainot), Bryan Cranston (Dean Tainot), Cedric the Entertainer (Lamar), Malcolm Barrett (Dave Mack), George Takei (Dr. Matsutani), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Talia)
Picture Tom Hanks. Got it? OK, now picture a guy whom Julia Roberts would find so overwhelmingly yummy that she would not only kiss him with the enthusiasm of a golden retriever, but even try to jump up and wrap her legs around his waist. Now, very slowly, try to merge those two images.
If you can’t do it, don’t feel bad. Almost no one can come up with a result they find plausible. Almost no one but Tom Hanks.
No doubt about it, Hanks has achieved more than many another Hollywood name. He has delighted us in movies like Big (1988) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), astounded us in Cast Away (2000) and Apollo 13 (1995), and brought history majestically to life in Forrest Gump (1994). He is so productive that his page on the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com) doesn’t list his works; it list years (2011, 2010, 2099, etc.) which one must click through to encounter his works. With so much going for him, it’s a little embarrassing that, for his second directorial effort (the first was 1996’s charming That Thing You Do), he has handed himself such a bouquet of vanity.
Everyone in the story admires Larry Crowne: other characters say, “You’re a great student,” “You have a grasp of my concepts like few others,” “You’re way cooler than you look,” and Julia Roberts hands him her heart, and all adjacent regions, on a platter. Larry is just a modest, honest, hard-working guy, who is somehow surrounded by a whirl of admiration. Other characters look at him and they get a kind of glow. When you’re both director and screenwriter (writing credits shared with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), you can do that.
When the story opens, Larry Crowne is a happy employee of U-Mart, a big box discount store. But instead of the 9th “Employee of the Month” award he was expecting, Larry gets downsized; he isn’t eligible for the advancement track because he never attended college. (After high school, he spent 20 years as a Navy cook.) Larry seeks a remedy at the local community college, where he signs up for courses in economics, writing, and “The Art of Informal Remarks,” the latter in hopes of presenting himself more effectively to employers. On his first day he finds the other desks occupied by classmates who were chosen with exquisite care to represent an ethnic spectrum (as were the faculty, his neighbors, fellow restaurant patrons, yard sale customers, and every other group setting he encounters).
However, relief arrives in the form of Mercedes Tainot, the “Informal Remarks” teacher, who is sarcastic, pessimistic, and regularly tipsy. Julia Roberts does a great job with this role. In the past, the part would have been written for a man, a cynical, world-weary professor, perhaps, who is reawakened to life by the charms of an innocent girl. The script has sex-changed that professor adroitly. Roberts’ Tainot ponders the politics of Shakespeare and Shaw, and sings along with Gilbert and Sullivan in her car; she scrawls the word “Care” on the blackboard and tells the students they will learn to do so in her class, but it’s clear she gave up caring long ago. Her remarks range from ironic to sarcastic, and she delivers them in a flat, deliberate tone. While on the back of Larry’s scooter she observes, “We’re going so slow a cat could knock us over.”
But Larry, obviously, cannot be a charming young innocent. The chief structural flaw in the story is that he is not particularly interesting—a nice guy, but not going to set the world on fire. Some other factor in the plot needs to provide that ignition, to position him in a role he wouldn’t naturally find, so he can be discovered and admired. That’s where the misfire occurs. There’s a fellow-student, Talia, who decides to turn Larry into a cool guy. She hangs with a group of students who, improbably enough, ride scooters and like to visit thrift shops. (“We ride for justice and beauty,” the gang leader tells Larry.) Talia could be the spark that repositions Larry in the story, but to do so she would have to be an unpredictable, even flakey, character—a delightful oddball. She isn’t. Talia is impulsive, but she lacks playfulness. When she grabs Larry’s style-less glasses and snaps them in half, it seems almost hostile. Talia ought to be ditsy, but instead she’s quite firmly in control. As a result, things don’t add up. The character doesn’t seem real, and she doesn’t evidence any chemistry with Larry, or even sincere interest. She’s not oddball enough to spring Larry loose into a brand new identity, even though the plot constrains her to go through all the motions (including feng-shuing his apartment). When others suspect that she and Larry have something going on, it’s not just unbelievable, it’s kind of unpleasant.
While the central characters are finding something less than synergy, secondary characters are often terrific. George Takei is great as an intense and strangely disconcerting economics teacher. (In his opening talk, after indulging in some lengthy but inexplicable laughter, he declares to the class, “That usually scares people, yet none of you have fled!”) Malcolm Barrett is a classmate who presents a talk on “The Five Dance Steps Every Man Should Know” (including the “butterfly wobble”), and delivers another talk while dressed in his Star Trek uniform. (He states, “There is no version of Mr. Roddenberry’s vision that I do not enjoy.”) Bryan Cranston is Tainot’s no-good husband, Dean, a novelist who sits at home supposedly “establishing a beachhead in the new media” but mostly looking at internet cheesecake. He defends himself in these words: “I’m a guy, who’s a guy, being a guy. That’s all!” And Cedric the Entertainer is terrific as Larry’s next-door neighbor, who runs a yard sale on his front lawn seven days a week. “I told you how to avoid divorce lawyers. Get married and stay married!” he says.
Tasty around the edges but disappointing in the center, Larry Crowne is a film that will meet the summer rom-com needs of many, but will not serve as a memorable addition to Tom Hanks’ legacy. Hanks is great at roles that require tension or loss. Nobody beats Tom Hanks when it comes to stalwart. He doesn’t have a particularly mobile or flexible face; he won an Oscar for Forrest Gump for a character whose expression stays the same no matter what happens. In off-screen photos, Hanks sometimes looks like he’s not fully in on what his face is doing; the mouth might be smiling, for example, while the eyes look desperate (check this photo from the Larry Crowne premiere; you’ll see many similar ones by googling “Tom Hanks images”). It’s like his facial muscles took a vote, but the results that came in were not unanimous. All of this is to say that the lead character of Larry Crowne might have been more intriguing if we had been able to track his inner development by means of subtle facial changes. Roberts can pull her features around like a rubber mask, but the Larry she inexplicably desires sticks mostly to stalwart.
Hanks co-wrote and directed Larry Crowne, and it’s fair to assume that he had a purpose in mind—that, with all the options available to one of his stature, this was how he wanted people to see him. He chose a vehicle that would position him as a desireable, fantasizable, romantic lead. Anyone might be tempted by that sort of project, of course, but it still seems a bit unworthy. (As much as I loved That Thing You Do, I thought it was odd that the actor who played the lead character and romantic hero—the band’s bright and admirable young drummer—must have been the winner of a nationwide search to find an actor who looked like the young Tom Hanks.) Even Larry’s face makeup looks strangely over-controlled—uniformly the same color, right up to the borders of his eyelids, unlike the varying, more-natural shades on the faces of his fellow performers.
Though in Larry Crowne Hanks developed a character who is eminently modest, the waves of admiration surrounding Larry convey a different message. Hopefully future films will bring us more of the believable and varied parts we’ve seen before. Not every successful actor can be his own best director.
Talk About It
1. In the opening we see Larry picking up litter and straightening shelves at the store, and hear him tell a fellow-worker, “It’s not just policy, it’s the right thing to do.” Do you think we are meant to admire this character? Or are we supposed to think of him as fussy and prim? Does our culture reward or encourage workers who do more than they’re required?
2. Julia Roberts performs her drunk scenes very well, making them quite funny. Do you think she thereby makes drinking look inviting, or cool?
3. The message-you-can’t-miss in Larry Crowne is “stay in school”—college, that is. It used to be that a high school diploma was sufficient for success, but now it seems that some college education is necessary, even for those who work at a discount store. What advice would you give to a young person who wants to go to work right out of high school? Have you ever considered returning to school for a higher degree?
The Family Corner
In addition to Larry and Mercedes’ makeout session, we see Larry in his white undies struggling into a pair of too-small slacks, and see some buxom ladies on Dean’s computer screen. Dean tells Mercedes that her figure is insufficiently curvy, in so many words. Mercedes is fond of slushy drinks she concocts in her blender, pouring liquor freely from bottles.