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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Larry Crowne

 “Larry Crowne” (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Tom Hanks, 2011

In Larry Crowne — a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts that should have been a timely, funny show, but isn’t — Hanks plays the title character, an up-from-working-class managerial guy suddenly cut adrift from his life, and forced to try to find a new one. Casting around at a local community college, he takes a class from Roberts, as a discontented teacher who can maybe help Larry, if she can first straighten out her own problems: alcohol and a worthless husband. After a while, Larry looks better and better.

This is the kind of role Hanks seems perfect for: a hard-working, decent, smart middle-American guy, a likable Ordinary Joe coping with severe, but typical, problems. It’s a role he actually dreamed up and wrote for himself. Hanks not only directed and produced the movie; he co-wrote the script, with Nia Vardalos, the writer-star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which Hanks and wife Rita Wilson produced, along with this movie‘s other producer, Gary Goetzman.)
Larry is a longtime U. S. Navy veteran (a cook), who got his job at U-Mart — which sounds like a Wal-Mart knockoff, but apparently sells big boxes — right after military service. He has been there ever since, working his way up the U-Mart ladder and he’s become a well-liked manager who wins scads of Best Employee prizes.
Suddenly, the door is slammed in Larry Crowne’s face. Summoned to talk to his bosses (who include Dale Dye, the military advisor on both Platoon and Forrest Gump), Larry is told that his lack of a college degree means that he can’t rise any higher in the organization, and that therefore he has to be let go. (Larry, the poor schmo, thought he’d been summoned to pick up another Best Employee award.) It’s a pretty ridiculous pretext for a firing at a big box store — surely the company has known about Larry’s school record ever since he arrived — and we suspect that one of his bosses, a jerky-looking one-time worker who was promoted ahead of Larry, may have been politicking. But it doesn’t matter.
In a matter of minutes, Larry is gone. (There isn’t even a phony farewell party, which is one of the script‘s many good opportunities missed.) And Larry isn’t married, and has no immediate family or support system (another strange omission), along with a big fat house mortgage he won’t be able to pay.
I think he should have sued U-Mart, for unjust firing, for ageism and for promoting softie easily manipulated little supporting-actors ahead of him — or at least he should have thought about it. But affable Larry, instead, enrolls at a local community college, the fictitious East Valley C. C. — and there he meets Julia Roberts as discontented Mercedes Tainot. Beautiful, discontent, borderline alcoholic, she’s the teacher (in public speaking), who may change his life, or at least provide the romantic comedy we’re all waiting for.
There are other colorful East Valley students and teachers around too: prickly economics Professor Matsutani (played, in a John Houseman mood, by Star Trek‘s George Takei) and a batch of multi-ethnic fellow students, all young, plus a motor scooter club Larry joins at the behest of the sensationally cute Tali (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), to the consternation of her sometimes friendly, sometimes surly boyfriend Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama). Also there is Larry’s philosophical neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and Lamar’s wife B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), who always have a yard sale going — though Cedric/Lamar unfortunately has too much furniture and not enough jokes.
You can tell where this story is going almost as soon as Larry gets fired. But that’s not really the big problem with the movie. Most of us probably want Larry to start putting his life together again, and most of us probably also want him to end up with Julia — though apparently Hanks had qualms about the older guy-younger women romance and had to be coaxed into it. It’s too bad he couldn’t also have been coaxed out of his own apparent inspiration to have Larry as a totally single guy with no immediate family. I kept wondering about the absence of those ties all through the movie, and I think it‘s a mistake. (A divorced wife and some kids for Larry, with the wife maybe a bit unsympathetic to his plight, or even some photos of a childless deceased wife — a John Ford moment — would have worked just fine, and also made the movie seem less of a back-to-college lone wolf fantasy.)
The problem with Larry Crowne is that it just isn’t well-written, or surprising, or funny, or compelling, or moving enough, though God and Gump know, it tries to be . Hanks sometimes nails those qualities with his direction — which is, as you’d expect, affable and easy and generous. The show’s heart is in the right place, but not its mind or its funnybone. It’s nice but dull — and it’s way too obvious.
Larry Crown
, I think, also makes a big narrative blunder, from which it never recovers, in painting Mercy’s husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) as a failed writer and self-pitying disheveled loser, who spends his days surfing for porn on the Internet — and then compounds that mistake by showing us Dean‘s (or the movie’s) idea of pornography, which consists of bikini bathing beauty shots that look as if they came from a Sports Illustrated ad.
To be blunt, having Dean be such a walking stubble-faced horny catastrophe, a pervert who doesn’t even know how to be perverted, diminishes a bit our sympathy for Mercy. And it deprives Larry of what could have been the slick, classist, nasty antagonist he needs here and just doesn’t have (except Prof. Matsutani, for a few moments). The movie could have used say, a Jason Bateman-style smug stud (or Cranston in that kind of role), someone who sees Larry as a loser, and is probably cheating on Mercy. That may seem slightly clichéd, though it’s something that’s happened in lots of real-life community colleges, among many real-life blue collar/white collar triangles.
But a cliché that works is better than a weird new innovation (like bikini porn) that doesn’t. And anyway, some of the best romantic comedies, including the oft-cited ones by Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, George Cukor or Howard Hawks, or even Splash and Sleepless in Seattle (all of which I’ll bet Hanks would have liked to be compared to), are often movies that use seeming clichés and then bend and reshape them and make them believable.

Hanks and Roberts have acted together before, in Mike Nichols’ and writer Aaron Sorkin’s good sleek bio-comedy-drama Charlie Wilson‘s War, where they were definitely both white collar, even ruling class. Hanks played real-life playboy Texas congressman Wilson and Julia was his main Republican supporter. Here Hanks tries to make a picture with audience appeal, heart and the common touch, tries to show us the kind of people the movies (though not TV) usually ignore — including older, more mature romantic couples.

I wish he’d succeeded. I’d love to see a good, socially minded romantic comedy, starring actors as smart, and appealing, as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. But Larry Crowne isn’t it — and not from any problem with the stars, their charisma or their age. (Hanks is 53, Julia is 41.) Frankly, even with Hanks’ added pounds, they’re both sexier and more attractive, and more fun to watch, than the vast majority of the hot young couples the movies keep throwing at us: interchangeably drawn from that movie sex fantasy pool that includes Justin Timberlake, Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Ryan Reynolds and too many others.
I also think there should have been more political/dramatic content in Larry Crowne — since it’s about an ordinary guy getting screwed over by the establishment, and colleges are exactly where, in our lives, we tend to be most political (because there are so many people to be political with). Is it Hanks’ celebrated good guy disposition that makes him, at least in this case, shy away from politics — say, from making the scooter club less of a Mild Bunch and something more community-minded or cause-oriented?
Did his nice-guy approach also tilt Hanks against creating a real antagonist or effective mean heavy working against Larry throughout? Hey, those heavies exist in real life. A lot of them look down on common people, or worse, don‘t even think they exist, don‘t even care. Too many of the bosses among them fire good workers or threaten their livelihood and life’s work every day, and they’re spending tons of money right now to make sure that the Larry Crowns of this country, and many people in far worse shape, stay screwed. Whatever, whether I’m right or not, this movie suffers for not having a stronger viewpoint. So do all too many other romantic comedies these days, even though their lovers are fashionably, correctly young.
Thanks to Hanks, Larry Crown is a nice guy, and his movie, in its better moments, is like comfort food — just not very good comfort food, too comfortable. Capra and Sturges, Hawks and Cukor, even Zemeckis and Ronny Howard would have given Crown more spice, more meat, more flavor. We wouldn‘t have walked out, after Larry and Mercy rode away on his scooter, feeling so empty ourselves.
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3 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Larry Crowne”

  1. topsyturvy says:

    Given the amount of publicity he’s doing for this film (TWICE on Letterman this week and that Univision weather dance) Hanks must know the movie is a stinker.

  2. Greg says:

    Julia Roberts is not sexier than Katherine Heigl or Natalie Portman. Never was never will be.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon