Friday, July 8, 2011

Larry Crowne (**)

Directed by Tom Hanks


I feel like I can say this with certainty: anybody who doesn't like Tom Hanks is probably a very unhappy person. Growing up in the 90's, it was hard to miss him as he starred within some of the decade's biggest hits and won himself two Oscars. There's something noble about a star the size of Hanks willing to take on directing, and Larry Crowne is his shot at it since the surprisingly peppy and enjoyable That Thing You Do! in 1996. His debut was a good but not great film, while his sophomore effort is okay but not good. In many ways, Hanks is both the best and worst part of his own film.

Consider a scene very early in the movie. Larry Crowne (Hanks) has been a great and loyal employee of UMart for many, many years despite being passed up for promotions year after year. In this particular scene, Larry is called to the break room where he thinks he will get his ninth Employee of the Month award. Instead, he is told by four of his employers that because of his lack of a college education, he will be let go. The scene is played in two different tones. Hanks plays Larry as a man devastated, perfectly bending the expressions of his face to elicit sadness of the audiences. But the bosses play it like slapstick, cruelly commenting on Larry's dismissal without much empathy. It feels like the actors had rehearsed the scene separately and this sets a befuddling tone throughout the entire movie.

Issues like the ones in that scene are the pure responsibility of the director and they pop out throughout film at times when they're least welcome. It doesn't help that many points throughout the film's screenplay seem preposterous and characters seem to make rather large decisions based on very little motivation. After being let go, Larry decides to take classes at a local community college. While there, he becomes good friends with Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an incredibly extroverted scooter rider who gives Larry the nickname Lance Corona and inducts him into her band fun-loving scooter friends. I never quite got the sense of why Talia felt the need to befriend Larry other than the fact that the screenplay kind of needs her to.

But the more important development in Larry Crowne's new college life is the people he meets in his Speech class. Most importantly, his professor, Mrs. Tainot (Julia Roberts). She's an incredibly cynical alcoholic who's more than happy to cancel an entire semester if she's not satisfied with the amount of students enrolled in the course. She's married to irascible blogger (Brian Cranston) who can't stop looking at porn, and she spends almost her entire time in the classroom debating whether or not she's making any impact at all. Larry finds it hard not to be attracted to Mrs. Tainot, no matter how rough her exterior, and with the help and stylings of Talia, he may be in the position to pick himself up and go after.

Of course, the script works hard toward pushing Larry and Mrs. Tainot together and doesn't seem to care if student-teacher ethics get in the way. The script doesn't even seem to work hard toward making a relationship between the two make sense, instead relying on the audience's need to see the two leads end up together as enough to justify it. The screenplay was written by Hanks along with Nia Vardalos who, despite one great success (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), has had trouble writing and producing anything watchable - let alone good. Too often we find ourselves having to simply buy into a certain contrived plot point because it would be too much work to fight it otherwise.

Because the truth is, this is the kind of film that you really want to like, because it's so hard not to like Hanks (or Roberts for that matter) in anything that he's in. Throughout the film, I questioned why Talia or Mrs. Tainot really enjoyed being around Larry. He's unemployed, a middle-aged man of the withering variety, and seems naive to the point of impishness. I'd totally understand if any of these women wanted to be with Tom Hanks, but there wasn't enough done to translate that love into the character. I guess they figured just having Hanks in the role was work enough and perhaps for most, it is.

As Larry Crowne, Hanks does have several great moments of charm (how could he not?) and both Roberts and Mbatha-Raw make the most out of characters that don't really have much dimension. The three of them alone help keep Larry Crowne from being unbearable, but they don't stop the film from being incredibly bland. Many will see this as an indictment on Hanks as a filmmaker, and he certainly does have a handful of mistakes that cause the film to swerve all over the map. I don't make business out of telling people whether or not they should make films, but I think Hanks can take solace in the fact that he was able to make a script as unwitting as this and make it bearable. But then again, he wrote the script. So I guess he can't win.

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