Larry Crowne: Tom Hanks’ Embarrassingly Naive Movie, Co-Starring Julia Roberts

Tom Hanks’ second directorial effort, “Larry Crowne,” is an embarrassingly naive romantic comedy, propagating a simplistically upbeat view of American society as a place where everything and anything is possible, no matter who you are.

Hanks’ second feature, just like his first, “That Thing You Do!” in 1996 (which I had reviewed for Variety out of Toronto Film Fest) is an insipid, gumpish, sanitized fable. New film, which Hanks also produced, co-wrote, and stars in, wastes the talents of Hanks the actor and his co-star Julia Roberts, who plays an impossible role.

Sharing writing credits with actress-scribe Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), “Larry Crowne” is an old-fashioned, timeless comedy that only pays lip service to our society’s new demographics and economic problems.

As a movie, “Larry Crowne” is full of contradictions.  It purports to be grounded in the reality of the recession, but unfolds as a fable of the Great Depression, made in the 1960s. It’s ideologically innocuous but commercially calculated.  It’s squeaky-clean, but wants to pass as cool.

The notion of America as one big beautiful and undifferentiated melting pot may derive from Hanks’ realization that without offering major parts to ethnic groups, viewers of such minorities will steer clear of his essentially white-bread saga.

Middle-age has not been kind to Hanks the actor, who has not made a good movie in a long time. In the 1990s, Hanks was Hollywood’s most prominent and significant actor, winning two consecutive Oscars, for “Philadelphia” (1993), as a gay person with AIDS, and then for “Forrest Gump” (1994), as an idiot savant and model American citizen.

Pushing 60, Hanks may be too old and too yuppie in look and screen image to play a working class hero, who is suddenly downsized after decades of loyal service to his company.  As played, Hanks’ average guy has no bad bone in his entire body.  He means well and does well, and in what is one of the film’s most recurrent images, he’s seen picking empty bottles and trash on campus and off.

Larry is constructed as a likable, hard-working blue-collar man, who’s rudely fired from the Walmart-like chain store, where he’s worked for 20 years. With no formal education, and burdened by alimony payments and a big mortgage, Larry decides to discard his past and start all over.  This is after all America, the land of upward mobility and unlimited opportunity.

He adopts as his role models a bunch of free-spirited youngsters, whom he meets at the local community college.  To that extent, he sells his SUV, opting for a sexier and cheaper motor scooter, moves into a modest flat, goes to school, works in a diner—and hopes for the best.

On his first day of classes, he meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a beautiful, open-minded, good-hearted black girl, who invites him to join her friendly biker gang.  Talia assigns him a cooler name (“Lance Corona”), urges him to get a new haircut and sexier wardrobe, and with her friends takes over his place and applies to it feng shui style.

And the other characters? Talia’s boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama) is a tattooed, handsome, Latino who, despite his macho bravado facade, is slightly threatened by Larry.

One of the text’s running jokes is that Larry’s black neighbours (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson) are running a seemingly perpetual yard sale; whenever he and the others pass by, the perpetually happy couple are outdoors smiling, trying to get rid of their junk (is that how they make a living?)

Every member has useful life lessons to spare (sort of simplistic one-liners that appear on birthday cards). However, the one person who really changes Larry’s life drastically is the seemingly cool, smart, and sophisticated speech professor, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts).

I have been teaching at college and university levels for three decades and have never encountered, as student or professor, teachers like the Japanese economics professor—or the one played by Julia Roberts.

Trapped in a bad marriage to Dean (an ill-used Bryan Cranston), a writer who spends most of his time surfing porn, she is a disillusioned, boozy femme.  Se keep waiting for Mercedes gets rid of her hubby, and after a series of boring arguments and fights, she does, after which she becomes available for a new extracurricular affair with Larry, her best and oldest student.

What motivated Julia Roberts to assume the role of the foul-mouthed teacher who begins to melt and show some feelings after meeting Larry?  Friendship and loyalty to Hanks?  There was no rapport between the two stars in their first pairing, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” another misfire.

One of Hanks’ problems as a star was his lack of erotic appeal, which becomes all the more evident here due to the lack of chemistry between him and Roberts.  Their semi-sex scenes are poorly staged and almost too embarrassing to watch.

The movie is set and shot in and around Los Angeles, but it could have taken place anywhere.  He cinematography, by ace lenser Philippe Rousselot (who also serves as one of the film’s producer), is disappointingly bland.

Does Hanks really believe in what the movie stands for, or just needed a star vehicle? “Larry Crowne” is a film in which every element is obvious, over-explicit, and squeaky-clean, from the writing to the direction to the acting to the production design and even music and soundtrack.

Unintentionally, the movie feels condescending to the working class and to ethnic minorities.

End Note

Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson produced the sleeper hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” by Nia Vardalos.  Wilson, wearing a blonde wig, plays a small, fake part in “Larry Crowne.”

Cast

Larry Crowne – Tom Hanks
Mercedes Tainot – Julia Roberts
Dean Tainot – Bryan Cranston
Lamar – Cedric the Entertainer
B’Ella – Taraji P. Henson
Talia – Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Dell Gordo – Wilmer Valderrama
Frances – Pam Grier
Wilma Q. Gammelgaard – Rita Wilson
Dr. Matsutani – George Takei

 

Credits

A Universal release presented with Vendome Pictures of a Playtone Co. production.

Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman.

Executive producers, Philippe Rousselot, Steven Shareshian, Jeb Brody, Fabrice Gianfermi, David Coatsworth.

Co-producer, Katterli Frauenfelder.

Directed by Tom Hanks.

Screenplay, Hanks, Nia Vardalos.

Camera, Andrew Birdzell; Rousselot.

Editor, Alan Cody.

Music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Deva Anderson.

Production designer, Victor Kempster.

Art director, Carlos Menendez; set designers, William F. Matthews, set decorator, Cheryl Carasik.

Costume designer, Albert Wolsky.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 98 Minutes.