by George Sax
A few days ago, Tom Hanks was on National Public Radio hawking his new comedy Larry Crowne, which he directed and co-wrote as well as stars in. He was asked one of those ancient, by-the-book press questions: What would he have done if he hadn’t been a fabulously successful movie star? Hanks obligingly told a pretty little story about taking one of those Circle Line boat tours around Manhattan and being fascinated by the spiel of the old tour guide. He’d probably have been one of those guides, the star said, telling stories, like he’s been doing in Hollywood.
If you buy that, maybe you’ll buy Larry Crowne, too. It deals with contemporary problems and social settings with the same kind of amiably patronizing and unrealistic, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” attitude that Hanks is wont to project in public and on-screen (with notable exceptions, especially Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition). On the other hand, you may find its resolute perkiness and slick soft-soaping of present-day problems in American life insipidly annoying and comedically infirm.
Hanks’ title character is thrown out of his retail job at U-Mart (get it?) in the movie’s first scene, despite nine employee-of-the-month awards, because he lacks any college credits. Never mind this dubious device; the scene is played for yucks, and its theater of cruelty crudeness ill matches the star’s plaintive good-guyness.
Hanks and his movie quickly dial down the prole loutishness, but what remains is Larry Crowne’s affably condescending tenor and its flatlining attempts at generating amusement. Kicked back into an unyielding employment market, Larry decides, almost on a whim, to enroll in a nearby San Fernando Valley, California community college for the degree-granting employment insurance he lacks, and winds up in Julia Roberts’ public speaking class.
The movie soon transfers its interest in Larry’s career planning to his transformational relationships with his younger fellow students and the bond between him and Roberts’ belligerently burnt-out prof. She’s saddled with a middle-aged juvenile of a husband (Bryan Cranston) who’s gone from an academic position to home-office blogging and cruising soft-porn websites. (Cranston, a gifted and accomplished eccentric comedian is almost as wasted in this one as he was recently in The Lincoln Lawyer.)
Larry Crowne proceeds with near-metronymic predictability, which needn’t have been fatal. There might have been a warmly humorous little movie in this setup, one that Hanks and company didn’t make. It’s not just a matter of its slapdash brushoff of crucial socio-economic issues, though its blitheness is persistently irritating. It’s the glaring lack of wit in the script Hanks wrote (with My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos). His idea of a tellingly witty point is to have an unctuously unhelpful bank officer tell Larry in two widely separated scenes that he should accept a “complimentary cup of coffee.”
Hanks’ direction is no more incisive. He hasn’t punched up the scenes (bearing in mind that he’s hobbled by his own script). He mostly lets a small retinue of players, portraying types of one sort or another, fill the scenes with actorish turns and business. He never really tries for much more than a slipshod manufacturing of warmth and sweetness. Larry Crowne comes off as more airheaded and patronizing than appealing.
Watch the trailer for Larry Crowne
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