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Monday, June 9, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Larry Crowne (2011)

Director: Tom Hanks
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts
Domestic Gross: $35,608,245

Between them Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have 25 live action films that have grossed more than $100 million, 15 of which (8 for Hanks, 7 for Roberts) were within the top 10 grossing films of their respective years. On paper, this pairing seems like a no-brainer and a guaranteed success, and it probably would have been had the two stars been paired up in, say, 2001, when Roberts was still the undisputed Queen of romantic comedies and pretty much everything Hanks touched turned to gold. By 2011 the picture was different, with Roberts having spent the decade finding modest success at the box office outside of ensemble pieces like the Ocean's films and Valentine's Day, and Hanks experiencing a bit of a box office decline himself, albeit one far less sharp thanks to films like Catch Me If You Can and the Da Vinci Code franchise. Neither star, at this point, is really known any more for romantic comedies - the closest Roberts has come since 2001's America's Sweethearts is probably Eat Pray Love, which is more of a drama, and the closest Hanks has come since 1998's You've Got Mail is probably The Terminal. So you could argue that Larry Crowne was a good idea that simply came too late, "could" being the operative word there since even if the film had been made and released in 2001 and was still this same film, it would have failed entirely on its own merits anyway.

Larry Crowne is a film which opens with its eponymous character (Hanks) forced to switch gears in middle age, informed by the executives at the big box store where he works that corporate restructuring is going to leave him without a job, as his lack of a formal education has left him in a position where he is unqualified to be promoted any further than his current position. In an effort to ensure that this won't happen at his next job, Larry enrolls in some courses at community college, including an economics course taught by Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), and a speech class taught by Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), whose unhappiness in her personal life has spilled over into her professional life and left her hoping to have her classes cancelled due to low registration. She has no such luck with the speech class, which has exactly the number of students required, and she goes through the motions of teaching, not even bothering to mask her frustration and unhappiness. Larry, meanwhile, finds his groove at college, excelling in Matsutani's class and becoming friends with classmate Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who takes him under her wing, overhauling his wardrobe and his home decor and bringing him into her scooter "gang," in addition to pushing him towards Mercedes. While Larry is getting a new lease on life thanks to his success at school, Mercedes rediscovers her passion for teaching thanks in no small part to Larry.

Written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, Larry Crowne is such a gentle and unassuming film that it almost feels mean to point out its flaws. Unfolding with a sensibility that can probably be best described as "quaint," the film is so entirely lacking in any edge whatsoever that even its more salacious elements aren't worth raising an eyebrow over. For example, during the course of the film Mercedes extricates herself from her unhappy marriage to a former professor (Bryan Cranston) who has parlayed his career as a novelist into a career as a blogger, which is actually just an excuse for him to sit at home looking at "porn" all day on the internet. However, even using the broadest definitions of what pornography is, what the film shows him looking at hardly qualifies, as he's only ever looking at women in bikinis. Given what can be found on the internet, much of it probably with minimal effort, it's actually almost adorable that the character spends entire days looking at photos of women wearing minimal clothing. If Mercedes is going to be mad at him about anything, it shouldn't be about what he's doing, but about the fact that he spends all day on the internet without, apparently, having learned to use the internet. One Google search would blow this guy's mind.

In addition to its bizarrely virtuous worldview, which includes its unwavering optimism that Larry, a man already in his mid-50s, would be able to start a new career with a couple of community college classes under his belt during a time when the US was hovering around its highest unemployment rate since the early 1980s, Larry Crowne demonstrates an almost hilarious misunderstanding of its genre and its stars' popular personas. Romantic comedies live or die on the strength of the chemistry between the leads. Whether Hanks and Roberts have that kind of chemistry is hard to say because Hanks spends more time one-on-one with Mbatha-Raw as Larry's would-be matchmaker/life coach than he does with Roberts, whose character goes from barely tolerating him to half-way in love with him in the blink of an eye. For much of the film Hanks and Roberts are off in their own separate stories so there's no relationship between them to speak of, which means there's nothing for the audience to invest in, and once there is, there's no conflict to give the relationship any rooting value. If anything, Larry Crowne actually goes out of its way to reduce conflict, making Mercedes' marriage something easily jettisoned without her having to give it a second thought, Larry's friendship with Talia something that even her boyfriend's random yelps of jealousy can't make seem anything but completely platonic, and the student/teacher relationship between Larry and Mercedes easily sidestepped by the fact that by the time she's even contemplating a relationship with him, the term is practically over so all they need to do is wait a couple of weeks until he's no longer her student. There's no struggle here, nothing to triumph over, nothing that gives the film any reason for being. It's just sort of... there.

Moreover, Larry Crowne, despite being directed by Hanks, has no idea what to do with its leading performances or how to use them effectively. While Hanks has long since established a "nice guy" persona on screen, Larry exists at such an extreme of niceness that even the most wholesome of Jimmy Stewart characters would be giving him the side-eye, wondering what his deal is. Meanwhile Roberts, an actress whose early career and greatest successes in film were built on her million dollar smile (insured for $30 million, if the internet is to be believed), is wasted in a movie like this, where her character is required to be miserable for about two thirds of the running time. You don't hire Julia Roberts for a romantic comedy and then not let her smile until 70 minutes in. That's just bad business.

The best thing I can say about Larry Crowne, and it's going to seem like I'm damning it with faint praise by saying so but I actually do think it's something the film deserves credit for and that other filmmakers should take note of and try to emulate, is the diversity of its casting. Hanks and Roberts are the stars, and Cranston plays a minor major character, but most of the supporting cast is filled in by actors of color. In addition to Mbatha-Raw and Takei, there's also Pam Grier as one of Roberts' colleagues, Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as Hanks' neighbors, and Wilmer Valderrama as Mbatha-Raw's boyfriend, in addition to the majority of the actors with speaking parts featured in Roberts' speech class. It's a little thing, but it's so refreshing to see given that most Hollywood movies default to casting white actors unless a role specifically requires that it be played by a person of color. This, however, is absolutely the only thing I'm willing to give Larry Crowne credit for, as in all other respects it's just a series of wasted opportunities.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Even at the height of their box office power, I doubt that Hanks and Roberts could have made a film this benign and unassuming a hit.

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