Two of the biggest superstars on the planet, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, join together for the romantic comedy, Larry Crowne, and offer a break from the more conventional bang-bang, shoot-em-up entertainment audiences have grown accustomed to seeing in the typical Summer Movie Season. Hanks is front and center with this project, serving as the film’s star, co-producer, co-writer (with Nia Vardalos), and director.
As the front-end manager at a corporate retail giant known as U-Mart, Larry Crowne (Hanks) has a simple and efficient life. A couple of years removed from divorce, Larry is quite popular with his staff and knows every nook and cranny of U-Mart’s cavernous retail store. He is anything but ordinary in this environment and loves coming to work each and every day. Unfortunately, U-Mart has a new ownership team running things and there is now a new mandate in place that all managers, both existing and those in training, must be college educated. Despite serving 20 years in the Navy as a chef, and several more years working up the ladder with U-Mart, he is unceremoniously fired having never attended a moment of college in his 50+ year life. The reasons given are obtuse and maddeningly generic, leaving Larry with no understanding as to what he has done to deserve this treatment.
Faced with no viable options after interview upon interview ends in failure, Larry heeds the advice of his married neighbors, Larry and B’Ella (Cedric The Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson), and signs up for community college. His goal is to take a couple of courses that will help him land new and fruitful job opportunities; among them, Speech 217, taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) and Economics I, taught by Dr. Matsutani (George Takei).
Ms. Tainot (“that’s Tay-No and not Tie-Knot,” she implores) is a 40-something college professor who has run out of good things to champion in her life. Her marriage is failing fast as her blogger husband, Dean (Bryan Cranston), sits at home and looks at Internet porn all day, denies it, and then blames her for not supporting his “blogging” career. Nicknamed “Mercy”, she optimistically hopes that too few students enroll in her courses so she does not have to teach them. She is miserable and brings that misery with her everywhere – home, school, even to her friendship with fellow instructor, Frances (Pam Grier). On the first day, Mercy is in the midst of informing everyone that with only 9 students attending her Speech 217 course, the class is cancelled. Until, Larry blasts in and forces Mercy to go forward with the 8:00 a.m. class.
Watching Larry Crowne, it is very easy to be romanticized into the cadence and pacing of the film. There is deliberateness about Hanks’ work that coincides with the laid-back, nicety underpinnings of its titular character’s take on the world. It has been said by others that Hanks’ Larry Crowne may be the nicest man on the planet. Perhaps, but he also has been called a grown up and slightly more intelligent Forrest Gump for the 21st century – a contention Hanks would likely take some umbrage with. To his credit, Hanks has studied and created Larry Crowne from the inside out and has deep affections for this everyday guy, faced with uncertainty regarding his future, and having to re-educate in community college at an advancing age. As good as Hanks’ performance is however, the film fails to measure up and feels too safe and convenient in key moments.
If I could sum up Larry Crowne in one word…it would be convenient. Events happen too conveniently for Larry Crowne the film, and Larry Crowne the man, to be taken very seriously. Hanks does evoke palpable fear and emotion in losing his job at U-Mart. For the rest film, details of his life are skirted over almost as if they are meaningless. Larry is divorced from a woman named Darlene and the only details we get are that Larry’s buying out of her interest in the house was likely a financial misjudgment on Larry’s part. He seems to get over his job loss quickly and we soon get the sense that not only is Larry Crowne indeed the nicest guy ever, but he is Teflon. Nothing sticks to him – good things, bad things, or otherwise, everything just rolls off his back.
An entire subplot of the film centers on the gorgeous Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who takes a peculiar and unexplained interest in Larry. Initially, the connection is centered around the fact that they both commute to school on motor scooters and rather conveniently, Larry becomes a member of Talia’s gang of motor scooter riders. Watching the Talia/Larry Crowne relationship is maddening because she seems almost created to simply fill time. Crowne is rather aloof to how beautiful Talia is and she seems to have some base level of interest in him; a fact that is obvious to every single other person in this film not named Larry Crowne. Is Talia just playing around cloyingly to make her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama) jealous? Does she actually have a crush on the simpleton who is 30+ years her senior? What is Talia’s purpose and motivation in being rather obsessed with this man and freshening up his look and stoking his attitude in every encounter they share together? Do people even exist like this?
Maybe this is why his wife left – Larry Crowne has no idea what is happening around him. In this regard, he could be characterized as frustratingly dense and clueless. He exhibits characteristics that fit occasionally with his personality and at other times; stand in total contrast with someone who could be a successful retail manager and ladies magnet for a studied and seemingly well-read college instructor. And a hot, young scooter babe…who is not interested in Larry but is kind of interested, just not in that way. Oh nevermind…
Julia Roberts handles her role with a nice balance of cynicism and curiosity, but seems to fall into a bond with Larry, like everything that happens in and around him, from sheer convenience. Larry sticks out to her initially as that tenth student that forces her to teach that early morning Speech class. Then, as her marriage disintegrates rather abruptly and (ahem) conveniently on a drive home, Larry is there on his motor-scooter offering a ride. She objects, then agrees, then he walks her to her door and sparks fly.
Watching Larry Crowne I admit that I did rather enjoy the film as it played and I laughed out loud a fair amount. George Takei simply kills in his role as the hard-to-read Econ professor and some of the students in Speech 217 are excellent with what little Hanks and Vardalos give them to do. Larry Crowne is hobbled by a safe nature and uncomplicated harmlessness as it exists in an untenable reality. Films and characters from movies such as Up in the Air and/or The Company Men would be aghast at the simplistic and matter-of-fact tone of what is brought forth on screen with Larry’s decisions regarding his employment, his school, his willingness to take a foreclosure and earn minimum wage. But Larry Crowne has a heart as big as the Grand Canyon and I suppose the fact that he is kind to a former co-worker when he could cut him down viciously, and he picks himself up by his bootstraps when times are hard for him, will resonate just fine with a lot of viewers.
All I know is that when I look around, I don’t seem to find much of anything convenient for most people nowadays or their problems so conveniently resolved. So I certainly beg your pardon in pointing out that the good and sweet-natured Larry Crowne character and film conveniently ignores the inconvenient truths we all deal with in the real world each and every day.
Larry Crowne is a harmless film…almost a fault. Despite Tom Hanks’ ever present charm and a steady hand behind the camera, the flick never develops into anything more than just a mellow way to pass the time. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie enough, but I can’t shake the notion that it easily should have been a better one. I place the blame on the doorstep of co-writer Nia Vardalos, who teamed with Hanks on the script and seems to push it in the direction of her incredibly bland films instead of the fun that was Hanks’ last flick he had a hand in penning besides directing (which was That Thing You Do). With the exception of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Vardalos hasn’t done anything worthwhile and her input hurts the film instead of helps it. Hanks and co-star Julia Roberts have charm to spare and enough chemistry to make their interactions enjoyable, but they’re part of a movie that seems to settle for decent when it had the potential to be much more than that.
The title character Larry Crowne (Hanks) has just learned that he’s a victim of the recession due to not possessing a college degree. He enlisted in the Navy right out of high school and is paying the price for it now. With a house he can’t afford and bills to pay, he takes the advice of his neighbors Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), swallows his pride, and enrolls at the local community college. There he meets a colorful array of characters who change his life (no surprise there). From the perky Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who inducts him into her scooter gang to his strict Economics teacher Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), all the way to his disillusioned Public Speaking professor Mercedes Tainot (Roberts) whom he easily falls for…everyone plays a part in shaping the new Larry Crowne. It’s a pleasant movie about pleasant people (with one exception…Mercedes’ porn addicted slob of a husband, played by Bryan Cranston) who have pleasant things happen to them. It’s a pity it just wasn’t a tad more interesting than it is.
Tom Hanks has definitely been better than he is here, but he’s far from bad. He’s just simply playing a toned down version of the “Tom Hanks” character he’s done more than once before. There’s one exception, which is his final speech in class, where he comes across exactly as Hanks is in real life, but for the most part this is Hanks on a slow speed. There’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it’s just a bit too mellow overall. As for Julia Roberts, she spends the first half of the movie auditioning for Bad Teacher: The College Years and the second half as a bit too giggly, but her scenes with Hanks are always strong. They have an easy chemistry that saves this flick. The supporting players are largely done a disservice by the script, with the notable exception being Mbatha-Raw, who’s a spark plug and beacon of encouragement for Larry. Both Cedric the Entertainer and Henson have little more than cameos, and the rest of the players (which include Wilmer Valderrama, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, Holmes Osborne, Rob Riggle, and Rita Wilson, in addition to the aforementioned Cranston and Takei), are given a moment or two to have some fun, but are quickly discarded or shunned to the background. Obviously this is the Tom and Julia show, but with neither of them especially shining, a bit more help would have been nice to see.
Hanks is a solid director, prone to keeping his film moving at a good pace and shooting things for maximum effectiveness and minimum distraction. He’s decent at directing his actors, but not exceptional. As a director he’s just fine…it’s in his script that the flaws of this feature come about. The concept has potential as a poor man’s ‘Back to School’ of sorts, but Hanks and Vardalos seem content to merely scratch the surface each and every time. The end result just seems so minor that it’s not worth the time of this talent. Hanks is obviously enjoying himself and likes what he put in the script, but it just doesn’t come across enough on the screen.
The final score for Larry Crowne is that it gets a passing grade, but it’s far more of a C+ or a B- than the A that it was hoping for. I will admit to having a good enough time at the movies with this one, but I expect more from Hanks. I don’t expect anyone to hate this movie, it’s just too good natured for that. However, I think more than a few people will find my review a bit on the charitable side. In the end, the flick is sufficient date movie fare for those who prefer their stars over the age of consent, but it doesn’t seem to want to be much more than just that.