Dir:- Tom Hanks
Starr:- Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, George Takei, Cedric the Entertainer
There really is no other way to put this, Larry Crowne is an uncompromisingly awful movie. Director and star Tom Hanks has the personal wealth and assured Hollywood status, topped up by regular paydays courtesy of computer animated cowboys and Dan Brown crafted conspiracy theories, to get almost anything greenlit. It says a lot about the man that he considers Larry Crowne a suitable project to kickstart his directorial career, after a fifteen year feature hiatus. If Hanks were a writer then this would be a self-published vanity work, destined to be discovered in all good charity shops come New Year. By now it has to be wondered why Tom still seems so desperate to be liked.
Remarkably Hanks has managed to shoehorn the declining stardom of Julia Roberts into this saccharine self-discovery movie. The whole thing appears to have been written by a fan of the TV series Community, but one who doesn’t actually understand how humour works and who has inadvertently made notes of every single rom-com cliché from When Harry Met Sally right through to Crazy, Stupid Love (paying particular attention to the casual technophobia and quotation-marked use of tech-jargon in You’ve Got Mail). Meanwhile, it can only be assumed that Bryan Cranston wandered into this mess whilst high on some of that blue crystal meth he’s been cooking up down in New Mexico – or maybe it was just the promise of big breasts.
Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is a seemingly hard-working, jovial, fifty-something middle-manager in a Wal-Mart style, corporate, big box retailer. In a cringe-worthy opening credit montage Larry seems to be everywhere in, and around, the store, trying his hand at everything and generally giving off the air of a man who is satisfied with his lot. In the strictly Hollywooden ‘reality’ of the plot Larry is summoned to the office (an indistinct area of the warehouse, with sofas, which feels like one of the few accurately depicted moments in the film), where he assumes he is going to receive yet another Employee of the Month award. Instead he is summarily fired due to a ‘restructuring’ issue which requires all employees to have received a college education. When did corporate America turn into Soviet Russia?
Hanks and his co-writer Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame and My Life in Ruins infamy) clearly wish to appear topically informed of the goings-on in everyday American lives, because not only does Larry lose his job, but as a result he is now set to default on his mortgage. Larry’s brainwave is to look into a stint at Community College, where at the very least you can hope to have Julia Roberts as your ‘Speech’ Professor and ride around on scooters all day with a bunch of tragically hip hipsters, who make up exotic names for each other and indulge in a spot of impromptu feng shui. When Cedric the Entertainer is added to the mix as the pesky neighbourhood huckster, who having won $500,000 on The Wheel of Fortune, can therefore afford to sit around his front yard all day, selling other people’s junk and occasionally throwing gobbits of homely wisdom Larry’s way, it should be abundantly clear what kind of contrived disaster of a film awaits.
As Hanks has aged, his innate boyishness and naive charm has evaporated. This has allowed him to fill faceless, bureaucratic roles, like Carl Hanratty in Catch me if You Can, to superb effect. However, it has also had the unfortunate effect of neutralising his appeal as a romantic lead. Hanks may assume that as the optimistic and honorable Larry, he is playing a variation on the ‘everyman’ of modern American cinema, a Jimmy Stewart for the 21st century, but in actual fact he is instead waddling around a poorly constructed soundstage looking like a faintly bewildered, pudgy, middle-aged, white male, with no discernible charm or sex appeal. Quite how any film is supposed to convince an audience that Larry Crowne is capable of getting any girl, let alone a snippy, quasi-matronly Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), is just one of the many insurmountable tasks that Hanks presents himself.
The screenwriting guru Robert McKee would have a field day on the plot incongruities apparent in this movie. Following the trend of numerous modern comedies and horrors, Larry Crowne doesn’t so much tell a story, as highlight an algorithmic structure for cobbling a story together. From the absurd firing sequence at the movie’s opening to the slight variation on the run-come-find-me rom-com climax, like a good boy scout Larry Crowne ensures that everything experienced in the first half of the movie, will in some way come to bear on Larry’s bland quest for self-realisation, whilst ignoring the fact that so little is ever at stake. Therefore his economics course helps him to foreclose on his property, his French toast presentation informs the romantic gesture at the movie’s close and his introduction to feng shui, courtesy of hipster-chief Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), manages to get him out of a hole in class. Speaking of class, what precisely are they doing in Professor Tainot’s lectures? Although there is more than a little validity in the criticism of pointless academic disciplines and the relative dispirited laziness of faculty members who tread the backwaters of regional community college life with little time for their students, this doesn’t seem to be the object of the movie’s classroom sequences. Instead they come across as a particularly complacent piece of poor scripting, approximating a veneer of community college reality, which remains just that, a veneer.
Almost everything about Larry Crowne feels ramshackle and second-hand. Hanks’ direction is so poor that he feels it is adequate in a mainstream Hollywood movie of 2011 to present a ridiculously bad green screen moped shot and think that nobody will notice. To assuage some of this criticism he then places a few dated-looking outtakes on the film’s end credits, as if this might be seen as ironic. There is an old-fashioned quality about this film that could be viewed as Hanks’ attempt to dwell on a bit of classic Hollywood nostalgia, but that would work if it was being nostalgic for something of substance. Here the wistfulness is cast in the bizarre dual form of a luddite-like technophobia and an aesthetic appreciation of the 1980’s cinema of Joel Schumacher. So utterly lacking in any spark of invention, originality, or charm Larry Crowne even hijacks a Tom Petty track specifically written for Ed Burns superior mid-90’s romcom She’s the One, to flesh out Hanks’ amble through ineffectual MOR rock.
Larry Crowne doesn’t need to play by the rules of some Dogme-like approach to cinematic hyperrealism, after all it is nothing more than a light and frothy rom-com (or at least that’s what it should be). However, this shouldn’t excuse the kind of sloppy, overly patterned, by-the-numbers approach that Hanks has taken here. To appreciate just how dull and lifeless Larry Crowne is compare it to the equally saccharine self-realisation rom-com Waitress. Where Larry Crowne attempts topicality and instead grasps at clichéd whimsy, Waitress spins the most outrageous of whimsy into something quietly profound, affecting and very funny. Only George Takei’s cameo appearance as the mobile-phone detesting Economics lecturer comes anywhere near that mark. At the movie’s close it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find a large percentage of the audience sincerely hoping that Mr. Hanks resist the vain allure of the director’s chair in the future, or for at least another fifteen years, anyway.