Monday, July 4, 2011

Larry Crowne *** Out of Four

Tom Hanks hasn't directed a film since 1996, when he gave us the slight but charming That Thing Thing You Do, and it's nice to see him make another attempt behind the camera (it's worth noting that during that time he has directed episodes of some of the mini-seres he has produced, such as From the Earth To The Moon and Band of Brothers).  Hanks the writer/director is far removed from most of the other stars these days who move into the the directors chair: he doesn't make monumental epics like Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson. He doesn't make soul-searching dramas like George Clonney or Ben Affleck. He makes pseudo-romantic comedies that are best described as "cute". But that's not a bad thing. A lot of people out there are trying to make cute romantic comedies, but most of them are too crass, tooo cynical, too manufactured to actually be "cute". The films Hanks directs actually are.

Larry Crowne (Hanks) spent 20 years in the Navy right out of high school, and never went to college. He didn't need to. He had a perfectly good job working for a retail store called U-Mart, where he'd been employee of the month 8 times. But, as the film begins, he's called by the boss and told that U-Mart policy says no employee can be held back for advancement, but that he's reached the pinnacle of where he can go without a college education. So, in the kind of solution that's made America's economoy what it is today, he's fired. After unsuccessfully looking for a new job, Larry ends up enrolling in East Valley Community College, where he meets three people who change his life: free-spirited young Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who changes his name to "Lance Corona", and makes him part of her scooter gang;  Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), an pompous economics professor, and Merecedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), teacher of a speech class.

Of course there's a romantic plot with Larry and Mercedes. That much is implied by the fact that you have Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in the same film. And the chemistry between them is really what makes the movie. I found myself feeling rather old as I kept thinking "Yeah, Tom and Julia, show the kids today what real movies stars are." Larry Crowne effectively demonstrates that one of the biggest reasons most of the romantic comedies today are so forgettable (or often worse) is that the Katherine Heiglels, Ashton Kutchers, Amanda Seyfrieds, Gerard Butlers, Catherine Bells, etc who star in them have nothing approaching the magnetism of actors like Hanks and Roberts. I found myself reminded that, even if it's contrived, lightweight or silly, a romantic comedy can be quite an enjoyable experience if the right charm is there. And charm is really what Larry Crowne has going for it. It has some laughs, but it's not a gut-buster. And not all comedies have to be. In fact, in many cases I'd much rather be engaged by the characters in a comedy and come out of it feeling good than get an overdose of belly laughs.

The most hit and miss aspect of the film is Talia and her gang. At one point, observing what she thinks is a romantic attraction between Larry and Talia, Mercedes quips "What is it with men and annoying free spirits?" Setting aide the irony of Julia Roberts, official miss fre spirit of the 1990s, saying this, I saw her point: Talia is alternately likable in her quirkiness, and infuriating in her pretentious naivete. At least the script seems somewhat aware of this. Another character I left with mixed feelings about was Bryan Cranston as Mercedes loutish husband. Cranston is a superb actor, and he's very good here, but I felt he deserved a character who was a little more than the one dimensional jerk he was playing. It's most likely in some part the Tom Hanks fan in me wanting to deflect blame from him, but I have a hard time not seeing the hand of co-screenwriter Nia Vardalos in some of these less fully realized characters. Don't get me wrong: I very much enjoyed Vardalos' signature film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (a prime example of the "sometimes charming can be more satisfying than laugh out loud funny" theory). But her subqequent work has been very much downhill, and even in Greek Wedding I felt some of the characters had a one-dimesional streak, and that this was most true of the male characters. I suppose there are so many male screenwriters out there who can't write decent parts for women that it's okay to have a female screenwriter who doesn't know how to write believable men. Larry himself could be considered to be an exception to this, but while againt this could the Hanks fan in me talking, I feel the character so much screams "Tom Hanks" that I give him most of the credit. Where I suspect Vardalos does deserve some credit is for Robert's Mercedes.

One of the most pleasant surprises, for me, was how much I enjoyed Takei's performance. I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but any film work Takei has done since his last appearance as Mr. Sulu has been nothing more than annoying self-parody, and his off-screen devotion to Shatner bashing has become rather tiresome. But here, Takei really shines. He's playing an extrememly pompous character, and he's certainly using the trademark George Takei voice to full comic advantage, but I laughed, and never felt like he was just playing himself or Sulu. He's the quintessential pompous college professor: a man who finds himself brilliant and fascinating, and, even when taking Larry under his wing and implying that he sees greatness in him, he considers the highest compliment to be "You have grasped my concepts like few others."

Larry Crowne isn't going to be remembered alongside the likes of Forrest Gump or Saving Private Ryan as one of the great films Hanks leaves as his cinematic legacy. He's not going to pick up a directing Oscar to go with his acting statues if this is the kind of film he keeps directing.  But he doesn't have to. That Thing You Do has remained a favorite of many people for it's pleanatly goofy charm, and Larry Crowne works on the same leve.  It does exactly what it's meant to: it provides a cute, charming, funny, pleasant little antidote to the overproduced masses of explosions which dominate the summer. Spending some time with Larry makes a pleasant evening that I'd gladly repeat.

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