Directors: Hanks, Tom–Good, Lucky, Ordinary American

It’s been fifteen years since Tom Hanks made his directorial debut with the comedy, ”That Thing You Do!,” a film which was well received by critics and audiences.

And now comes his second film as a director, “Larry Crowne,” an upbeat romantic comedy in which he stars with Julia Roberts.  The movie reteams the two Oscar winners for the second time, having appeared together in Mike Nichols’ satire “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

Timely and relevant, “Larry Crowne” is grounded in the context of the economic recession and its devastating effects on millions of Americans.  Hanks plays the titular role, an affable ordinary American who’s forced by circumstances to undergo a personal reinvention and find an unexpected second act in his life.

Until he was downsized, Larry was a superstar team leader at the big-box company U-Mart (standing in for Wall Mart), where he had worked for decades, ever since his service in the navy.  Burdened by mortgage and alimony payments, and confused as to what to do with his suddenly free time, Larry heeds the advice of his good friends neighbors, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson) and heads to his local college to start over.

At East Valley Community College, Larry becomes part of a colorful group of fellow scooter-riding students, including the charming Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her boyfriend, Dell (Wilmer Valderrama). To his surprise, Larry develops a crush on his public-speaking teacher, Mercedes Taino (Julia Roberts), a cynic who has lost her passion for teaching and is now trapped in a bad marriage to a lazy husband (Bryan Cranston), who spends most of his time surfing porn on the Internet. Under Mercedes’ (initially reluctant) guidance, the middle-aged student undergoes an amazing transformation.

The comedy, which is both Capraesque and Capracorn, is uniquely American in its manners, morals and life lessons.  Unexpectedly, the simple average guy learns an invaluable lesson:  Just when you think everything worth having has passed you by, you might discover your reason to live—and to believe.

This is a personal movie for Tom Hanks, who says the story of “Larry Crown” has been in the works for at least six years.  After high school, Hanks attended junior college, and his experience there had huge impact on him: “This was in the mid-1970s, and there was a sensibility of flux. In my class, there was somebody who was middle-aged, somebody in his fifties, somebody who was just back from Vietnam. I became friends with everybody in class, and I found these rich life experiences amongst them.”

Wearing multiple hats, Hanks has also produced the serio-comedy with his longtime partner at Playtone, Gary Goetzman. Along with Goetzman, Hanks spent the past decade producing such hit films as The Polar Express, Charlie Wilson’s War, Mamma Mia! and Where the Wild Things Are; the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries Lamar, The Pacific, Band of Brothers and John Adams; and the critically acclaimed HBO television series Big Love.  Simultaneously, Hanks took on acting roles in such blockbuster films as “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels &Demons,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Toy Story 3.”

Throughout this time, Hanks continued to take notes and build scenes as he reflected upon the idea of what would happen to a man who starts over at the point in his life in which many would find it unthinkable.  What motivated Hanks:  “I wanted to take the concept of a guy who does everything right, loses his job for absolutely no reason that is his fault, and goes to college out of a lack of anything else to do.”

Says Hanks: “Out of my experience in junior college came this character of Larry Crowne. He has his life completely altered by the fact that he gets fired. They let him go under the pretense that he couldn’t advance because he didn’t go to college. So what does Larry do? Much like when I was out of high school. In junior college, nothing is expected of you except what you put into the day when you drive to campus.”

In 2006, Hanks further developed the concept with writer Nia Vardalos, with whom he had collaborated as a producer on the blockbuster film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” He says, “I wanted to work with Nia, because I needed her expertise. There are characters in this film that needed to have complete voices, which had to be authentic. She worked on many drafts, and then I took it and began to edit. The give and take with Nia continued right up until the end.”

In their screenplay, they explore the emotional toll of unemployment on a middle-aged navy vet who had been a standout worker at U-Mart. His frustration is matched by the financial toll of divorce, a whopping mortgage and a gas-guzzling SUV.  In an attempt to widen his job prospects, Larry enrolls in East Valley Community College (EVCC) to secure a degree and make himself more marketable. Little does he realize that this one small step will alter the course of his life.

The most important element Tom Hanks the person shares with Larry Crowne the character is “the desire to fight cynicism,” which to him is “the whole point of the movie.”  He adds: “There is something else I share with Larry and that is his ability to kick ass at breakfast. I am the guy at the house who gets up a little bit earlier than everybody else. I make a really good breakfast, but I can’t make lunch or dinner for the life of me.”

Hanks gave all his actors an assignment for the film’s public-speaking scenes: select your own topic and talk about it for several minutes. Hanks explains: “Larry’s first class is like speech class for boneheads. You take people who do not know how to stand up and give informal remarks and teach them how to do that. I’ve taken classes like that in junior college, where you have to get up and read things you’ve never read, and you think you’re going to die the first time you have to do them. But by the end of the semester, it’s the most fun class you’ve ever had. You look around, and everybody is enthusiastic about the final.”

Confident as an actor, Hanks is modest as a director: “I’m an artist, a label I would claim because I’m an actor and a storyteller.  But I don’t have instincts as a director beyond those that I have as an actor.  I am not like Bob Zemeckis, Ron Howard, or Spielberg, with whom I have worked. They are all born directors, all they wanted to do was to direct movies from the moment they had a conscious thought.”

Happily married to actress Rita Wilson for over two decades, Hanks says: “We’re still pretty good after 23 years.  We are artists in different ways. We met while making a film, so we understand each other’s needs.”  He elaborates: “Look, I am not stupid. I’m not going to walk away from somebody as great as my wife.  By the way, all of our close friends have been married for a long time.

Hanks describes his wife as a renaissance woman: Rita can do whatever she wants to, and I’d back her–provided she worships me on Father’s day.  She’s been writing about fashion for Harper’s for sometime.  I told her, “baby, “you’re a taste-maker.”

He would allow that he let his wife, who plays a small part in “Larry Crowne,” a bank loan officer, to pick a wig.  Rita chose blonde.  Laughs Hanks: “She could have gone brunette, redhead, anything, just as long as she could bring the wig home.”

Hanks has recently become a grandfather, when his son Colin (from Hanks’ former wife), who’s an actor, and his spouse greeted a young girl. He’s proud of Colin, who’s appearing in the new season of the TV show “Dexter.” Talking as a proud dad, he says: “My daughter Elizabeth is about to deliver a manuscript to Random House, a book she’s been working on ever since she got out of Vassar College. I’m very sad that the bookstore she has worked at in Pacific Palisades is going out of business because of the loss of revenue.”

Hanks says he reads on line magazines and periodicals but no books: “I have vowed I will never buy a book on a Kindle. My policy on books is simple: Buy. Read. Keep!”

Hanks is by his own admission old-fashioned, as he explains: “There are people out there that lie very easily, they don’t think anything about it, and they say, ‘well, that’s part of life. You’ve got to accept the lie.’ I refuse to accept that. If you lie to me, you’re going to be in big trouble. By and large, I am a good-natured man and I gave everybody a fair shake, but if you take advantage of that good nature, you’re going to suffer the wrath of a lover scorned.”

But Hanks is decidedly not nostalgic: “I don’t live in the past.  I don’t have any sense of going back and reliving my former achievements and glories, because who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Life is forever evolving and being redefined today.”

Summing up his acute self-perception, Hanks is utterly blunt: “I’m a pretty decent guy, you know.  I am not a lightweight, I’m not a pussy, and I don’t mean pussy in a pejorative or sexist sense. I mean that as a cowardly dude.”