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Larry Crowne
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by Erik Childress

"Not-So-Heavy Lies The Very Likable Crowne"
4 stars

When Tom Hanks steps behind the camera to call the shots and take credit for a screenplay, precisely what are you expecting? Cynicism and the dark underbelly of our world? That would be like asking John Wayne to direct a film that wasn't about cowboys and indians, even if the indians happened to be the Vietcong. Hanks is as All-American a moviestar as Wayne with the well-established likability of Jimmy Stewart and as I have stated many times, publicly and privately, to not like him is akin to being a communist. This is the man who gave us That Thing You Do, a little diddy he put together while playing astronaut Jim Lovell, a film that only those who draw back pain while trying to put together a smile could resist. Now, 15 years later, he is back in the director's chair to give us another version of the effects of the nation's economy; as depressing and potentially unintelligible subject matter as there is these days. Except by personalizing it, Hanks has managed to give us a winning grown-up comedy that once it gets going is hard to stop smiling at.

When we meet Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) over the opening credits, he looks to be the kind of lifer at a Wal-Mart-like store that would be spoofed on SNL or mocked as a loser for taking his job so seriously. He is honestly expecting to be named a nine-time employee-of-the-month when he discovers he is unceremoniously being downsized because as a non-college attendee there is no room for company advancement. So, bye-bye to the divorced Larry who served twenty years in the Navy as a cook. What is he to do now with no job and a house that is not worth as much as he still owes? It is not like he can just win big money on a game show and live out his days with a constant yard sale like his neighbors, Lamar and B'Ella (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson). Determined to never allow such a loophole to affect him again, Larry decides to enroll in community college.

There he takes two classes; an economics tutorial presided over by the "scary" Dr. Matsutani (a very funny George Takei) and a speech class by the perpetually hungover Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) pronounced "Tay no" not "Tie knot." She almost has little reason showing up to class herself when it barely meets the minimum requirements for daily attendance. Larry helps meet those standards though and so the class must go on. At school, Larry turns into a pet project of the eternally sunny Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw from TV's short-lived Undercovers) who makes him a part of her scooter "gang", reinvents his wardrobe and living conditions and even hips up his name to Lance Corona. Mercedes on the other hand is hitting rock-bottom with her stay-at-home husband (Bryan Cranston) who spends more time looking at internet porn than writing. If only there was a decent, selfless guy out there to give her a little direction. Like the middle-aged one in her class that helps re-program her GPS.

That is precisely the kind of on-the-nose metaphor we might expect from Nia Vardalos, who co-wrote the script with Hanks, but unless I just pointed it out most viewers probably wouldn't have caught it in the moment. It is just part of the credit that goes to Hanks the director who finds such natural development between the two potential lovebirds that, just as he did between Tom Everett Scott & Liv Tyler in TTYD, you are never quite certain how, when or if the two are destined for each other. Even if deep down we know. Most will find that disbelief easier to swallow than the idea that any Target-esque store would fire someone for not having a college education. For a brief moment it seemed Hanks may have been taking that darker, cynical route towards the real benefits of schooling that prepares you for the world by amassing a giant debt that forces you into becoming a part of the workforce. That's not Hanks' style though, nor is it to just take the same path to learning that most other back-to-school films fail with.

Larry is not someone who feels sorry for himself nor seeks out enemies to blame for his problems. The screenplay allows him a couple of cheer-seeking moments of reverse irony, but mostly he is a guy who puts his head down, pushes forward and does the best that he can. Just like the guy playing him. Almost nobody is better than Hanks in allowing those silent moments of "what now?" reflections to creep upon his face and just when we think we have Larry figured as some kind of slightly higher IQ'd Forrest Gump, he draws us in to an altogether different gentile human being. The real standout of the film though happens to be Julia Roberts. After being nearly squeezed off the screen by Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Aaron Sorkin's script in Charlie Wilson's War, Roberts here owns a good portion of the film with a portrayal that blows Cameron Diaz's "bad" teacher off the screen. For starters, the character is written in such a way that makes it understandable how an educator can walk into their classroom indifferent and annoyed, then walk out needing a stiff drink. Bad students are an element that Bad Teacher sorely missed. Roberts also never reduces to Mercedes to just a titular caricature and between her classroom reactions and chemistry with Hanks, this is perhaps the most engaging performance Roberts has given since her Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich.

Larry Crowne is not quite in the same league as That Thing You Do. With Hanks sharing screenwriting duty with Vardalos, you can almost make a game out of which characters and plot elements were of her invention and which ones he eventually smoothed out. Cranston's big-breast-obsessed, single-minded "I'm a man" husband is right out of the Vardalos playbook and it's a bit sad to see TV's Walter White play such a one-note goof that even Malcolm In The Middle's dad would call an idiot. Mercedes' confusion over Larry & Talia's relationship also goes on at least one scene too long (past a moment that should have cleared that up for good) but her observation about Talia's personality traits almost instantly forgives all of its sitcomy implications. If Hanks makes one misstep as a director, it is in allowing the film to go on just a bit too long. At only 99 minutes, its hard to imagine such a likable concoction overstaying its welcome, but there is such a perfect little moment in a diner that should be the real ending to the film. Instead it continues for another ten minutes to basically spell out everything the diner scene said. As with That Thing You Do, maybe there is an extended DVD cut to be released someday, though in the case of Larry Crowne, less may indeed be more. It may not have the sarcastic meta edge of TV's Community but underneath also shares the more embracing idea of finding those willing to be there and do the little things in order to not let the world knock you down. And who better to serve up that idea without making you choke than Tom Hanks?

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originally posted: 07/01/11 01:55:03
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User Comments

9/18/16 Jamie Fun cast but too bland. Always like Julia but felt like it was a repeat performance. Boring 3 stars
6/17/12 Ady boy I dig the point of this picture, but it isn't told very well. Not at all. NO. 2 stars
4/29/12 Rob Roy I thought Nia Vardalos lost it, but then she never had it. 2 stars
9/11/11 Jeff Wilder Hanks is good. But the movie as a whole is lightweight, smarmy and predictable. 2 stars
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  01-Jul-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 15-Nov-2011


  DVD: 15-Nov-2011

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