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Larry Crowne Is OK, But Kind of Sad For Former Top Stars

Larry Crowne
Directed by Tom Hanks
Written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos
Universal, 2011

Tom Hanks last appeared behind the camera for a feature film with That Thing You Do!, a movie I will never forget had an attached trailer on 1996’s de facto summer blockbuster Independence Day.  Here’s a 1960’s fluff rock movie, all bright and colorful, set to the film’s bubble gum pop song.  Now here’s the destruction of the Earth brought to you by Roland Emmerich.  Anyway, come to That Thing You Do! in October, kids.

That Thing You Do! turned out to be a pretty good movie and has a cult following.  Hanks has had greater success in later years behind the camera, as producer of cable TV series From Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, Big Love, and The Pacific, but teaming up with writer Nia Vardalos and making My Big Fat Greek Wedding turned out to be one of the most amazing success stories in cinema history.  Wedding ran like an old-school pre-VHS-era film, never making huge bank in any particular week, but ending up making tremendously huge bank with its longevity.

That picture was the perfect amount of good publicity and word-of-mouth, and Vardalos hasn’t had quite the success since.  Hanks, the actor, is well beyond his can’t-miss 90’s self, having only two movies (excluding animation) in the past 10 years to be huge hits and you could argue that he was only a marginal reason why The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons brought audiences to theatres.  Then you have Julia Roberts, who co-starred with Hanks in the overlooked Charlie Wilson’s War.  Roberts was the biggest female star of the 90’s, getting an Oscar for 2000’s Erin Brockovich before easing up for family life and occasionally making a movie now and then.  Many of them have been of the Mona Lisa Smile or Eat Pray Love variety.  And almost assuredly, if this movie had been made in the 90’s, it would have been Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Larry Crowne is about a smart guy (Hanks) who has been languishing in the retail business for years.  His bosses (Dale Dye, Rob Riggle, Claudia Stedelin, and Bob Stephenson) come to the decision to fire him because there’s no way for him to advance in the company without a college education.  Getting advice from his yard-sale czar neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), he ends up going to community college.  And he trades in his gas-guzzling vehicle for a motor scooter.  At school, he meets the young, cute, unknowingly flirty Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and ends up joining her pleasant motor scooter gang, along with her lightly distrusting boyfriend Dell (Wilmer Valderrama).  Talia’s whole purpose in the movie is to make Larry a cooler dude.

His first class is Speech, taught by Mrs. Tainot (Julia Roberts), who preaches to her students to “care” but is quickly out the door if a class doesn’t have 10 students in it.  His other class is Economics, taught by Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), which happens to have the cutie Talia in it.  Larry’s work ethic makes it easy for him to adapt in the classroom, and his easy likeability earns him friends who are much younger than he.  Eventually, the possible romance looms between he and Tainot, mainly because she is in a horrible marriage with Dean (Bryan Cranston), a guy who used to write novels and is now reduced to blogging, and now not even that…he just surfs bra-busting bikini websites.

Larry Crowne isn’t a bad movie.  Hanks is more than up to the task of being this guy.  I just wish the movie could have been more about him.  The movie is at its best when Larry uses what he learns at school to help himself out.  His speeches in class offer insight into the character, and he definitely uses his econ class to his advantage.  Roberts is likeable (or hate-able, if you just generally don’t like Julia Roberts), in full-on no-nonsense sub-Erin Brockovich mode, but I think the movie is far too focused on other things: Talia is cute and always welcome, but perhaps another movie would have been this character’s best fit.  The whole “her boyfriend is jealous” angle comes off dishonest, since Dell seems to be a pretty cool cat and should have no fear of a 55-year-old man taking his girlfriend.  The scenes involving a very talented Bryan Cranston end up just being awful.  He’s a poorly written character and could have been completely excised from the final product.  I guess Hanks and Vardalos thought there needed to be some sort of extra conflict to get Larry and Tainot together, but it bogs down the film.

This plays like a watered-down 40-Year-Old Virgin.  A much better movie is in here, but it seems altogether distracted.

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