Larry Crowne (United States, 2011)June 30, 2011
A dozen years ago, the prospect of a romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts - two of the most bankable actors of the late-'90s and early-'00s - would have created waves of anticipation. In 2011, this second collaboration between the two (they were previously paired in Charlie Wilson's War, although not romantically) is having trouble generating ripples. Part of that is because it is being released as "counterprogramming" to Transformers 3. Another part is that this is intended for grown-ups and the summer season is not kind to such films. Finally, some would argue (those who base their decisions solely on box office calculations) that both Hanks and Roberts are past their "sell by" date. This may be true, but it doesn't stop Larry Crowne from being three things Transformers 3 is not: light, frothy, and capable of being watched without generating a headache.
The concept of a romantic comedy in which the leads are old enough to legally drink is something of a novelty these days. That wasn't always the case, of course, but the genre has gradually been perverted over the years to the point where not only are the stars in their teens but so are the expected members of the audience. One senses that group will avoid Larry Crowne like the plague - it's too much like the gross-out consideration that their parents have sex. On the other hand, those who appreciate the star quality and appeal of Hanks and Roberts may relish the opportunity to see what kind of chemistry these two can generate opposite one another. The spark is there and that's all actors of this caliber need to generate a little heat (although the result falls short of a conflagration).
Larry Crowne should not be mistaken for a masterpiece. It is summer entertainment: genial, undemanding, lightweight. But it has a heart, offers winning performances from two genuine luminaries, and (thank god!) isn't available anywhere in 3-D. To experience Larry Crowne, viewers will have to suffer through the indignities of paying less for a ticket, being refused the chance to wear cheap plastic glasses, and seeing every image clearly and brightly. And, as obvious and predictable as this story might be, it still works - in large part because we care about the human beings inhabiting this motion picture.
In a nod to the harsh realities of today, Larry Crowne opens with a layoff. Perennial Employee of the Month in a Walmart-type store, Larry Crowne (Hanks) has been let go because he lacks a post-high school education. More bad news follows when he learns that his house is now worth less than his mortgage. He's drowning in debt and there's no one to throw him a lifeline. So he gathers up the shreds of his dignity and enrolls in three courses at the local community college. One - a public speaking class - is taught by Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who has become as disillusioned about her profession as she is about her dead-end marriage. It goes without saying that she and Larry will become attracted to one another and that their presence in each other's lives will have beneficial effects. For Larry, though, there's another source of inspiration. A co-student in his Economics class (taught by a hilarious George Takei), Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), introduces him to a "scooter posse" (a group of students who commute to college on motor scooters). The openness and friendship of this group loosens Larry up so he can excel in Mrs. Tanoit's course.
Although the film follows the generally accepted arc of the traditional romantic comedy, it thankfully avoids the pitfalls associated with artificial interpersonal conflict (something also known as "romantic complications"). Larry's ex-wife doesn't suddenly want him back and Mercedes' good-for-nothing husband doesn't undergo a personality transplant. The romantic aspect of Larry Crowne relates to two decent people tiptoeing their way into a relationship. This is part of a larger picture - Larry grabbing his runaway life by the horns and regaining control - but it's by far the most important part.
One disappointment is how bland and uninteresting most of the supporting characters are. Despite a relatively high billing, Cedric the Entertainer has little more to do than play the "helpful neighbor" and throw out occasional one-liners. He's irrelevant to the main thrust of the story and on hand to provide some background color. Ditto for the members of the motor scooter gang and the students in Mercedes' class. Larry Crowne is not populated by a group of richly drawn, engaging secondary personalities.
Larry Crowne is co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, whose career is defined by the term "one-hit wonder." She struck pay dirt with her endearing 2002 sleeper, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but has done nothing worthwhile since then. While it's impossible to separate her contributions to the screenplay from Hanks', she is not one to take chances or write with an edge; neither of these qualities are found in Larry Crowne. Like most romantic comedies, this one is about wish fulfillment. In this case, it's the promise that there can be brighter days after losing a wife, a job, and a house. It is fair to argue that Larry Crowne isn't a lot smarter than the average summer movie, but at least it's quieter, more sincere, and mercifully shorter than most of its box office competition.
Larry Crowne (United States, 2011)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson
Screenplay: Tom Hanks & Nia Vardalos
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures