Friday, July 1, 2011
Larry Crowne (2011)
The best way I can describe Larry Crowne (2011), Tom Hanks' second feature as a director, is tone deaf. The story plays out in a manner I suspect rich, successful people imagine the world of the working-class and part-time student to be. This starts immediately with what is probably supposed to be a humorous shot of title character Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) pushing a near infinite amount of shopping carts back into the entry port of the UMart where he (briefly) works. That is Hanks and co-writer Nia Vardalos' idea of showcasing the spirit and hardworking attitude of Crowne, but it plays as false and unknowing of the procedures for pushing carts, and the fact that Crowne, effectively a very reliable worker bee would not be pulling parking lot duty (at least not on the same day as his other featured tasks).
Crowne is called into a meeting where he is informed that he is being terminated because the UMart corporate policy is to ensure that all employees have the best chance to succeed and advance up the corporate ladder. Crowne didn't attend college and UMart's information is that such people are less likely to advance, therefore Crowne can't work there anymore. It is all bullshit, but it doesn't appear that Hanks wants the audience to know that. Two management level employees inform Crowne of their college bona fides (with one citing three years at Chico State; an employee of UMart is more likely to have served three years in Chico state prison -- also referred to as Chico State -- than have attended the university in question) as Crowne struggles to defend his choice to forgo college for the Navy and then UMart.
All of this is a set-up for Hanks and Vardalos' weak commentary on the state of the economy and its impact on the working-class. Apparently in their minds, financial freedom can be forever ensured with a one-time payout of half a million dollars (which makes me wonder how either views their financial status in relation to the people they are endeavoring to portray on the page). Rita Wilson has a thankless role as a seemingly vapid loan officer at Crowne's bank, smiling while telling the lead character that his financial situation will ruin him but there is always complimentary coffee. Crowne appears to be without any type of support network or friends as he looks for work and tries to come to terms with losing his job (and this is largely handled in a few very short scenes, as though any exploration of Crowne's angst or pain would detract from Hanks' eventual reveal of his boyish charm). He ends up confessing his woes to neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), who in turn directs him to the local community college.
This is where Hanks and Vardalos think they are making a profound point: college can change your life. Dale Dye, as the Dean of Students, actually has to say the line "It will change your life" when referring to the class he directs Crowne to take. For those who go away to school, who make life-long friends and make themselves available to the social scene, who are coming to that experience unformed: yes, college will change your life. Those who first go or return to school as honest-to-God adults, much older than the just out of high school crowd, who still have to manage all of their existing responsibilities in addition to the course and home work, college is a means towards a goal. It is a preparation towards being able to effect a positive change in one's life (and doesn't that seem more reaffirming for this film's target audience?).
Most of the characters in Larry Crowne aren't particularly likable. Crowne himself is a bit of a sad-sack. Crowne should be a man given to diligence, routine, and knowing the regulations. Hanks writes, directs, and plays him with incredible naïveté. He doesn't object (or know that he should?) to being fired without cause. He doesn't approach beginning college with any kind of goal or with expectations. He seemingly forgets a good friend who can immediately give him employment until it can be used as a plot point midway through the film. Crowne is a pliable being, remade by a chance acquaintance, but somehow resolute in his goodness and integrity. The audience will like Crowne only as much as they already like Hanks; Crowne is the veneer of a character more than a realized one.
Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) is likewise unlikable. She is presented as either a disinterested or burnt-out teacher turned babysitter. Her lot in life appears to be a schedule for a classes that never happen (which she finds out by counting the students present for the first session and not through registration records forwarded to her). It is unclear if Dye is drumming up students for Tainot or if he believes her to be a good teacher. She asks her students to care but only does so once (about anything, really) at the end of the film. She is a functioning alcoholic in a miserable world of which she is the primary author (Bryan Cranston has the least rewarding chore in the movie of portraying her husband as a boorish, not even approaching porn addicted former professor, author, and commentator on the various blogs of the world). Like Hanks with Crowne, the audience is supposed to like Tainot because she is played by Julia Roberts, not because of anything about the character.
Supporting characters fare a little better. While Jack Strang (Rob Riggle) and Dr. Matsutani (George Takei, looking and sounding as alien as anything ever on Star Trek) are loud, they are also bland and forgettable. In fact, there appears to be cutting room floor material left out that would better explain Crowne and Matsutani's relationship as there are earnest hints that this is the more rewarding relationship for student and teacher. Wilmer Valderrmana does an excellent job (I'm going to admit that I was shocked) making Gordo an enjoyable mix of machismo, vulnerability, and compassion. Malcolm Barret, looking markedly younger than he did on Better Off Ted (2009-10), has the two funniest bits in the movie. Rami Malek makes his pleasantly stoned character, Steve Dibiasi, fun and not a bore or drag on the story. Grace Gummer, looking every bit as lovely as her mother ever has, plays the role Natalie Calimeris with engaging verve.
Stealing the entire movie is Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Effectively playing a real-life version of Kelly LeBrock's computer genie from Weird Science (1985), Talia is like a force of nature that drives Crowne's changes, including getting he and Tainot together. Mbatha-Raw plays Talia with such youthful, but neither arrogant nor ignorant, self assuredness that the audience cannot help but fall in love with the character (though Gordo loves her the most). She is universal goodwill made incarnate. She is the pretty girl who doesn't have to try to look good, who is sexy when acting tomboyish. Frankly, she is the character that should be at the forefront of a movie.
Hanks' direction is mostly nondescript. Other than laying some heavy music in scenes where it may not belong, his work is competent if uninspiring. He appeared to let the younger cast members have more leeway, more fun in their roles and it left me wondering why he didn't do a movie about younger people finding each other in the same setting instead. He cannot overcome his own writing, however, and telegraphs most of the coming scenes (to no positive effect).
Larry Crowne is watchable. It isn't a bad movie, but it relies much too heavily on the audience being invested in the stars hired to play the lead roles. It doesn't understand the world it inhabits, and for that reason I would not recommend it.