Friday, July 1, 2011

Larry Crowne

Learn, Forrest, Learn: Mr. Gump Goes To College

Tom Hanks as the title character in the film "Larry Crowne", which he also directed, produced and co-wrote. Universal

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 1, 2011

Tom Hanks returns to the feature film director's chair after 15 years away from it with "Larry Crowne", a tidy, predictable and enjoyable romantic comedy with a made-for-television feel and a warm, well-intended heart.  The film opened nationwide today.  Mr. Hanks plays the title character, a recently-divorced man laid off from his long-time job "because he didn't go to college."  Hmmm. 

Be that as it may, Larry is hurting from the divorce and jobless slap-down, and Mr. Hanks' pallid expressions convey the pain.  We've seen the look before.  The "excuse me, am I being fired?" moment the actor's AIDS-stricken character in "Philadelphia" returns early on in "Crowne", a film that ephemerally taps into the downsizing of self-worth during unemployment.

During his time of despair Larry gets emotional support and ribbing from his ever-negotiating neighbor Lamar (Cedric The Entertainer) and wife (Taraji P. Henson), whose back story is an instant quick-fix contrast to the economic hardship Larry has.  Larry looks for work but with the little money he has left decides to go to college (isn't college expensive these days?) in the hopes of finding work.  Larry, a middle-aged man looking to rejuvenate his sedate life, takes a speech class presided over by jaded, cynical teacher Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who teaches at East Valley College and breaks bigger rules than Cameron Diaz's Elizabeth did in last week's release "Bad Teacher".

Bitter, Mercedes is boxed in by a marriage of misery and man-a-thon declarations by her boar-like, superficial husband (Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad".)  Why did she marry him in the first place?, you may wonder.  Mercedes' anger at her slumming, porn-obsessed spouse carries over into her classroom.  She seethes like a hissing python poised to attack.  Ms. Roberts pulls off the barely-concealed rage she exploded in Mike Nichols' 2004 drama "Closer", in what is for much of Mr. Hanks's film a one-note performance.

Soon "Larry Crowne" swiftly dispenses with the weight of the recession, a melancholic bubble that practically bursts when Ms. Roberts first walks into her classroom.  The interplay between Mr. Hanks and Ms. Roberts (reunited from the 2007 film "Charlie Wilson's War") is at first tentative, and Ms. Roberts' jagged Mercedes and her class of nonplussed students keep each other off-balance.  "Larry Crowne" keeps its goodwill intact, not wanting the current realities of the day to break the heart of its fairy-tale dreams and aspirations.

Mr. Hanks directs "Larry Crowne" using a lot of syrupy close-ups, with the camera looking lovingly at the abundantly talented actors who mug in front of it.  Yet I was gleefully and unabashedly sucked in to this sappy, saccharine love-fest.  I couldn't help falling in love with the sugary goodwill "Larry Crowne" bandied about like cotton candy.  The film screams "care" like Mercedes does in a most cynical way, but I still bought in.  Mr. Hanks aims to please, and the film is pleased to aim as high as it can, even if its scenarios are too pretty and convenient for its own good.

You know the ending of "Larry Crowne" long before it gets there.  We are told often, however, that it is the journey, not the destination, that matters in life, and if that counts for anything at all in this clean, neatly-directed yet sometimes scattershot film, then "Larry Crowne" is nothing if not a consistently funny and entertaining comedy.  Full of sweetness and cookie-cutter joy, "Larry Crowne" has the feel of a 1970s TV sitcom romance or a kind of intermittent "All In The Family" shot on vacation with stars who are replacements for the more realistic originals -- but these ingredients are why "Larry Crowne" plays well on the big screen.  It has an Eagles-like peaceful, easy feeling and is unapologetic about its Southern-like hospitality. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Talia in Tom Hanks' romantic comedy "Larry Crowne". Universal

The film executes its task: a likeable guy is divorced and laid off, finds his bearings in an economically-depressed America, and finds love.  If you're looking for a 2011 summer movie that does this in the simplest and most confounding way possible, then "Larry Crowne" is your movie, and Mr. Hanks is your man.  Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") and Mr. Hanks co-wrote the screenplay, which sometimes jumps hurdles higher and faster than the great Edwin Moses once did.

Undeniably Mr. Hanks is today's Jimmy Stewart: a nice, likable everyman, a regular Joe who gets along with everybody.  Even if he happens to ruffle feathers, he does so in a friendly way, just like the movie itself does.  This quality is used to the actor's advantage in "Larry Crowne", and when Mr. Hanks puts on the director's hat he uses polite, appealing imagery.  And when we first see Ms. Roberts, we don't see her behind (ala Ms. Huntington-Whiteley in the contemptible "Transformers 3"), we see a shot of her shoes and feet, a moment which will be repeated and commented on, with the director's in-joke dialogue -- in a verbal wink of sorts to his star lady -- about halfway through.

Does "Larry Crowne" have its contrivances?  Yes.  Is there a measure of expediency in the way the film gets from A to B to Z?  Sure.  Are some parts, particularly well-worn bits about a boyfriend and girlfriend who behave like less than that, tiresome, even irritating?  Indeed.  Still, "Larry Crowne" never announces itself as a vehicle that will do much more or less.  It entertains suitably.  Amidst a summer jam-packed with bloated blockbusters, "Larry Crowne", a Hollywood film with the most racially diverse cast I can remember since "Crash" (2005), succeeds only as treacle-covered sentiment and sweet love for a prickly teacher.  I smiled and laughed a lot, even as I had more than a few questions.  Where were the red apples?  Come on now, no apples?  How about them apples!?!?

Cast-wise, George Takei is terrific as a pompous, self-aggrandizing mathematics-physics teacher who understandably discourages cell-phone use in class.  Mr. Takei's character would have every right to do this within 38 seconds instead of confiscate Larry's phone during class.  The film cheekily wallows in the generation gap between Larry and his fellow students, nodding like an unwavering, obedient bobblehead doll.  The legendary Pam Grier cameos as one of Mercedes' colleagues and confidants.  I had hoped for more of her in the film, and Mr. Hanks appears to under-light her profile in a few scenes before showing her in full bloom and warmth later.

Above all, the film's standout, the person most representing the idealism and good-heartedness "Larry Crowne" offers, is the eager, bright and endlessly charming Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Talia, an enterprising free-spirit and scooter enthusiast who makes many cosmetic differences in Larry's life.  Talia is charming, intelligent and dare I say, accommodating, but not in the sense you may be thinking.  You may (or may not) wonder why Larry wouldn't want to date her.  (I assume that Talia, as a college student, would be 19 or 20.)  The film also laughs at such dating possibilities while hinting at them. mostly through one jealous character.  Alas, the bitter teacher, who has done little to gain Larry's affections -- and only perhaps because of one drunken evening -- wins out over the kind idealist.

With: Rob Riggle, Wilmer Valderrama, Rami Malek, Malcolm Barrett, Maria Canals-Barrera, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer, Sarah Levy, Julia Cho, Rita Wilson, Holmes Osborne, Biff Henderson, and the voice of Nia Vardalos.

"Larry Crowne" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for brief strong language and some sexual content.  The film's running time is one hour and 39 minutes.

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