starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Rita Wilson, Wilmer Valderrama, George Takei, Pam Grier, Rob Riggle
written by: Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos
directed by: Tom Hanks
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content
I would like to thank Larry Crowne for making me feel young. As a man who is currently closing in on 30, i.e. the last time your accomplishments in relation to your age could be celebrated as list-worthy (“Top 30 Under 30,” etc.) and the only thing left to do so that people will marvel at your youthfulness is die young, it is sometimes tempting to think that this is pretty much the end of the road. But no! Watching Larry Crowne, with its desperately Boomer-pandering “kids these days” gags, curmudgeonly technophobia, and general wistfulness for a bygone generation of cheerfully hard-working people, I felt younger than Justin Bieber’s pubes.
Tom Hanks stars as the title character, a relentlessly optimistic retail sales associate at a fictitious WalMart-type store. Which Larry loves working at. LOVES! Loves so very much. Hell, he’s been the employee of the month nine times! So when he gets called into a meeting with his supervisors, he thinks it’s to earn yet further accolades for his all-smiles performance. But alas, Larry is being downsized because of a corporate restructuring. Despite his years of service, the company is cracking down on employees without a higher education. And Larry, who spent 20 years as a Navy cook and never went to college, is out on his ass. Which feels like such a ridiculously Tea Party setup: a veteran gets fired from his working-class job because some corporate elitist says he’s not “educated” enough. The nerve! But fortunately the film isn’t actually anti-education, which is pretty much the only nice thing I can say about it.
So how does Larry handle this sudden firing? Does he go on a messy journey of self-discovery like Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go? Does he throw a violent, foul-mouthed tantrum like the many layoffs in Up in the Air? No sirree, this is Larry Crowne! Rather than scoring an eightball and hate-fucking a hooker (there’s a Tom Hanks movie I’d like to see), he hi-diddly-ho’s his way down to the local community college and enrolls in a few basic courses to start bettering himself.
At school, he meets two people who will change his life. The first is Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a psychotically happy and aggressively generous young woman who, along with her pack of scooter-riding friends, inexplicably descend on Larry and his life like the singing birds in Cinderella, giving him a head-to-toe makeover, rearranging his home, teaching him how to be “cool”, etc. The second is Mercy Tainot (Julia Roberts), Larry’s speech professor. Mercy has allowed years of personal and professional discontent – she and her husband (Bryan Cranston) despise each other; her classes are poorly attended by apathetic burnouts – to turn her into a deeply bitter, frequently hungover woman. But once Mercy encounters Larry and his surplus of plucky virtue, it’s clearly only a matter of time before she warms over.
There is so much that is wrong with Larry Crowne, Hanks’ first feature-length directorial effort since the comparatively excellent That Thing You Do! (1996), co-written by Hanks and indie phenom-turned-punchline Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). First among this comedy’s problems is that it is simply not funny. It suffers from stilted, extremely cringey, sitcom-style humor. And not a good sitcom; we’re talking ABC here (other than Modern Family). It lacks a single laugh-out-loud moment. There are a few amusing bits, such as a recurring gag with Wilmer Valderrama as Talia’s jealous (but harmless) boyfriend and George Takei cashing in on his humorous persona as an economics professor. Other than that, it bombs.
It also fails to be moving or powerful in any genuine way. Its optimism is so shallow and unexamined, it feels more like a Hallmark Channel throwaway than a feature film by one of our most beloved talents. The fundamental flaw is that Larry is fundamentally flawless. He is practically a saint. If we were to fault him, it would be for being too trusting and pure at heart. We learn that he recently went through a messy, expensive divorce, but can only assume it was her fault. And without a relatable protagonist, how can the film expect the audience to become invested? Mercy is far more compelling, but Roberts takes so much relish in making her the most snarling bitch imaginable (and is already sketched so thin in the script), the character ends up going over the top.
With a one-two star punch like Hanks and Roberts that practically harkens back to the studio system, Larry Crowne was perhaps destined to be an old-fashioned throwback. But it goes far beyond that. It is oblivious and irrelevant, out-of-touch and lamely anti-technology (kids with their cell phones! grown men claiming to be “bloggers”!). Its wide-eyed, unblinking positivity borders on the cultish. And while the moral seems to be about the difference a good attitude can make, it only succeeded in making mine far worse.