Crowne of Yawns
It’s impossible not to like Larry Crowne, seeing as how it stars two of the most likeable movie stars of late-20th-century vintage. Tom Hanks is professionally adorable and effortlessly inspires absurd happiness just to see him gosh-darning his way through a movie. Julia Roberts — since she stopped playing sex workers in uncomfortable fairy tales about female servitude — need merely flash that megawatt smile to make you forget how aggressively meh a movie is.
Yet aggressively meh is the best way to describe Larry Crowne. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a particularly good one, either. It feels calculated for cute: mild, feel-good, none-too-challenging cute. It’s probably nothing more than we should expect from Hollywood’s nicest movie star turned director — this is Hanks’ second time behind the wheel of a feature film, after 1996’s That Thing You Do! — and, you know, Larry Crowne is, you know, nice. Really really nice.
Too nice. So nice that you want to smack it.
Because there are some nicely pointed barbs that Larry runs right up to and then shies away from. Larry (Hanks: Toy Story 3, Angels & Demons) is, you see, a happy-go-lucky floor manager at, ahem, UMart as the flick opens. He’s so happy at such a shitty, low-paying, thankless job that you have to wonder if there’s something not-quite-right-in-the-head about him. Later we learn that he’s a 20-year-vet of the U.S. Navy, and so probably has a military pension, and this is why he can afford — in both the financial and the spiritual senses — to be so chipper about wearing a logo-emblazoned polo shirt and fuckin’ khakis every day while he copes with appeasing the bargain-hunting public. And also how he has been managing the third-of-a-million Southern California mortgage he’s been saddled with since his recent divorce.
Anyway, just after Larry is set up as a happy guy who loves his shitty job, he gets laid off from that shitty job in a way that, in the hands of, say, Mike “Office Space” Judge, would turn into an all-out satire on corporate bullshit, even if only momentarily. It’s something to do with discriminating against a dude and explaining it away as part of an antidiscrimination policy, but screenwriter Hanks and his coscripter Nia Vardalos (Connie and Carla, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) can’t quite figure out a way to make it sting. Hanks-the-director seems like he might be trying, with some tricksy cutaways to characters who aren’t speaking in the getting-laid-off scene, to inject some sort of snide funny into the moment, but it simply isn’t there. The scene ends up feeling like a tease that never pays off.
But off goes Larry into a fleeting funk, disposed with via job-hunting montage, that is lifted when he enrolls in community college — lack of a degree is supposedly what was behind his firing — and meets-cute with fellow adorable Talia (the awesomely monikered Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Doctor Who). She, manic pixie dream girl that she is, instantly adopts him, gives his life a makeover — clothes cooled up, hair funkily shorn, decor feng-shuied, social life jump-started — and is generally all-around awesome in all ways for him. Except in the romance department. That is being reserved till bored prof Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts: Eat Pray Love, Valentine’s Day) — Larry is in one of her classes — can finally get around to recognizing how freakin’ adorable and happy-go-lucky Larry is.
And here’s another way Larry misses the opportunities before it. Mercy is deeply miserable in her work — her classes are full of distracted idiots — and in her marriage to writer Dean (Bryan Cranston: The Lincoln Lawyer, Little Miss Sunshine), who, to be fair, doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the asshole she keeps insisting he is. (As Mercy might say, “Really? Really?” Dude looks at some boobies online, and that’s the end of your marriage? Cripes.) Still, one must sympathize with her existential despair, particularly as she sees Larry cavorting with Talia and makes the wrong — yet perfectly reasonable — assumption about them. Eventually, this causes her to moan, “What do men see in irritating free spirits?” I would like to be able to commiserate with Mercy in this matter, but alas, the movie appears to have made it its mission to demonstrate just how amazingly cool and inspiring Talia is. When the inevitable romantic finale arrives, and Larry is telling Mercy that she, Mercy, changed his life, I’m out there in the audience going, “Um, no, Talia changed your life. Mercy’s been just been in the background complaining about how miserable her own life is the whole time.”
In the end, then, Larry Crowne doesn’t even add up to the fluffy nonsense it wants to add up to. Still, one cannot deny the ineffable pleasure to be had just watching Hanks and Roberts do that thing they do.