A film review by Craig J. Koban July 6, 2011

LARRY CROWNE j
j
½

2011, R, 99 mins.

 

Larry Crowne: Tom Hanks / Mercedes Tainot: Julia Roberts / Dean Tainot: Bryan Cranston / Lamar: Cedric the Entertainer / B'Ella: Taraji P. Henson / Talia: Gugu Mbatha-Raw / Dell Gordo: Wilmer Valderrama

Directed by Tom Hanks. Screenplay by Hanks and Nia Vardalos

Tom  Hanks’ LARRY CROWNE - marking his return to the director’s chair after a 15 year absence - is a hard film to hate, but it’s also a hard film to truly sit back and admire.  

At face value, LARRY CROWNE is lightweight, cheery, eager-to-please, and is satisfyingly undemanding of its viewers.  Yet, perhaps all of those traits are precisely what’s off about this self-reinvention romcom: it’s too fluffy, warm-hearted, and routine for its own good and is easily forgotten not too long after viewing it.  I had a smile on my face all throughout LARRY CROWNE, but it was almost more out of polite and pleasant-mannered acceptance.

Outside of the interest generated by Hanks stepping in both as a director and star, LARRY CROWNE is, on paper, compelling for its screenplay credits: it was written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, the latter whom you may recall wrote the underdog sleeper romcom MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, which was also produced by Hanks.  What the pair is attempting here, I think, is a fairy tale-like story of a middle-aged man that – while facing the harsh economic realities of a global recession – is forced to pick up the pieces of his life and radically reinvent himself while finding a new soul mate.  Nagging comparisons between this film and UP IN THE AIR are clear-cut, but Jason Reitman’s comedy was more agreeably edgy and had legitimate things to say about the times its story existed in.  LARRY CROWNE, by direct comparison, inconsequentially demands far less from its audiences other than to take them on a breezy ride, which ultimately makes the film feel mechanical and contrived. 

Larry Crowne (Hanks) is living life to the fullest at the beginning of the film as a manager at a Wal-Mart inspired big box store.  Even though he takes his job perhaps more seriously than one should in his line of work, Larry nonetheless enjoys what he does and commands respect and admiration from his colleges.  He has won innumerable employee of the month awards, so his status as a favourite associate to the public seems never in question.  It’s perhaps because of these reasons that his unceremonious firing in the film’s first act by his superiors is all the more shocking to him. 

Why would a man as tenured, qualified, and adorned by his peers as Crowne be let go?  The script never provides a believable answer, other than a scene where his higher-ups state that his lack of a college education means that he will be incapable of climbing the management ladder (apparently, the corporate HR never once, for reasons unexplained, took his 20 years of Navel service into question).   Completely crestfallen, Crowne leaves his dream job and heads into the dark alleyways of unemployment, where he soon learns that jobs are not aplenty.  Even worse is that he is slowly becoming debt-ridden and has a house that is worth less than what he owes the bank. 

Realizing that he desperately needs to reclaim his pride and a purpose in life, Crowne decides to enroll in three courses at a nearby community college (another one of the annoyingly vague aspects of the script is how these courses will in any tangible way get him out of his financial pickle).  One of the courses he takes is in public speaking and is taught by a borderline alcoholic slacker named Mercedes (Julia Roberts, Hanks' CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR co-star, who plays a far less bitchy and dislikeable educator than, say, Cameron Diaz did recently in BAD TEACHER).  Very early on in the class it appears that Mercedes has very little ambition to teach, mostly because her job fails to excite her anymore, not to mention that she’s stuck in a dead-end, about-to-fail marriage to a loser. 

Even though adjusting to the new environment of college life is tough for Larry at first, he slowly acclimatizes himself, assisted greatly by some new friends, like Talia (the beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who introduces him to the college’s scooter gang, which leads to the obligatory EASY RIDER-esque montage of Larry, Talia, and company all cruising through the streets (I am not altogether sure that this many scooter enthusiasts live in any town or city, but I digress).  What’s important is that Talia and her friends help Larry to loosen up, re-evaluate how he acts and dresses, and, most importantly, gain some much-needed self-respect, which will come in handy for not-only excelling in Mercedes’ class, but also for any attempt of a romantic relationship with her.  Sorry, but the film’s poster alone is more spoiler worthy than that last plot reveal. 

LARRY CROWNE has been marketed and released as a bit of shrewd counter-programming to TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON and there are certainly things to admire here beyond it simplistically not being a Michael Bay orgy of seizure inducing carnage.  Firstly, Hanks and Roberts are a fine on-screen pair and have enough presence to sell the film well beyond its plot contrivances.  Hanks in particular is one of the best actors at evoking a sense of calmness and hopefulness even when faced with the worst of personal dilemmas, and he makes Crowne a readily agreeable fella.  Roberts herself, as mentioned, is really solid at playing a more self-absorbed and self-pitying figure in the film, who, at first, makes an effective foil to the happy-go-lucky Larry.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a sweet natured force of change in Larry’s life and the actress is good at harnessing her role’s deep desire to help Larry shed his dorky, tucked-in submissiveness and become a real go-getter.  And, yes, the film has a splendidly funny cameo by Sulu himself, George Takei, as an economics professor that is kind of hilariously intimidating.  

The central quandary, though, with LARRY CROWNE is with its ambitionless script that spends too much of its time on pure autopilot.  Sometimes there are story elements that are never fleshed out at all (like Larry’s ex-wife, the fact that he has no kids, and why he has such a huge suburban house that he can’t afford).  Many of the secondary character are also poorly rendered, like Larry’s neighbors, played by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson, whose only colorful traits are the fact that they seem to be perpetually having a yard sale every – and I do mean every - day.  The classmates Larry comes in contact with are essentially stock, cardboard cutouts from the cliché factory. 

Then there is the central romance between Larry and Mercedes, and I never really plausibly believed why she would fall for him so readily and willingly, other than because the script demands it.  One of my biggest pet peeves in romcoms is when the female that is being perused by the male protagonist is either dating or is married to a one-note cretin, which makes it easy for audiences to root her on to hook up with someone else.  Well, LARRY CROWNE offers just such a man, Mercedes’ husband (played by Bryan Cranston, one of the finest actors of the small screen in BREAKING BAD) who is one of the most thinly developed husband characters in many a moon.  The screenplay is so lazy in regards to him that it essentially delegates him to being a porn-addicted slob.  This provides easy and highly convenient motivation for Mercedes to leave this pathetic fool and fall head over heels for Larry.  Great actors like Cranston deserve better than excruciating caricatures like this and we the audience deserve a more finely attuned love triangle.  Why not make Mercedes' hubby a nice guy too to provide some conflict? 

Alas, conflict is not what LARRY CROWNE wants; it’s more comfortable playing out its story with the least amount of unpredictability and edge possible.  The film does not even make modest attempts to offer insights into its recession-heavy era, not to mention that it misses real opportunities to be a scathing satire of the Wal-Mart corporate structure.  Notwithstanding that, LARRY CROWNE also reveals Hanks as a far better actor than a director (he gives the film a steady and assured pace, but visually it's kind of inert and just sits there on the screen).  Hanks has delivered some performances for the ages, but as a man behind the camera, he certainly does not seem interested in taking creative gambles.  This film – as eagerly likeable as it is at times – is proof positive.

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