Friday, July 1, 2011

Perfect For Airplanes and Grandmas: Larry Crowne

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Larry Crowne" has been giving me the skeeves ever since I saw the first trailer in which Tom Hanks locks lips with Julia Roberts. There is just something so very...unsexy about that sight, I couldn't believe a movie was being built around it.

Now, Tom Hanks is a very likable guy, both on and off screen. But Tom Hanks is not a sexy leading man. He is a lovable uncle. It's true that at one time, his comedic gifts and everyman good looks could spell romantic lead, (see "Splash," "Sleepless In Seattle," etc.), but I would submit that contrary to popular belief, not all leading men get sexier as they grow older. Not all men are Sean Connery.

I am not sure if it is the combination of comedy and age that sucks the sexy out of some actors, but it seems to follow that rule. (I got equally skeeved out by the thoughts of Steve Martin having sex with Claire Danes in "Shopgirl," and had to look away any time they kissed.)

After seeing "Larry Crowne," I've come to believe that I'm not the only one who feels this way about Tom Hanks. I'm pretty sure Tom Hanks feels this way too, and as such, he has created a movie that is the very definition of bowdlerized.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. "Larry Crowne" tells the story of an uncomplicated, middle-aged guy who works at a thinly disguised version of Walmart and Target. He seems to really, really love his job, which might lead the viewer to think the guy might be...special, in a "Forest Gump" kind of way. But no. He's just a simple guy who likes his job, and has been awarded eight Employee of the Month honors as a result. Unfortunately, he's also a simple guy without a college education--20 years in the Navy got in the way of that--and as a result, he's deemed unpromotable, and therefore expendable, by the suits in charge.

Poor Larry Crowne has roughly five minutes of despair at his situation--divorced, middle-aged, unemployed, undereducated, and with an underwater mortgage to boot--before he cheerily starts to look for a new job. When no option presents itself, he decides to go to community college.

Trading in his gas guzzling SUV for a scooter, he is initiated into a "gang" of scooter-riding twentysomethings by an unfailingly perky fellow student named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She gives Larry a new name, (Lance), a new haircut, (possibly dyed black), and a new wardrobe, (which includes skinny jeans and a wallet chain...seriously).

Julia Roberts is Mercedes Tainot, (the pronunciation of her name is one of the film's feeble running jokes), the English professor heading Larry's Public Speaking class (one of only two classes he seems to take, the other being Economics, headed by George Takei, doing an excellent George Takei impersonation).

Mercedes is in a perpetually bad mood, because she doesn't think her students care about her classes, SHE doesn't care about her classes, and she's married to a "blogger," (Bryan Cranston), who stays at home all day looking at "porn." (Last time I checked, porn was not defined as pictures of women in bikinis). Unsurprisingly, she has a fondness for margaritas.

That Larry and Mercedes develop a romance is not a surprise. What IS surprising is how absolutely chaste and G-rated that romance is. I don't think it's a spoiler to say they only kiss twice in the entire movie, and one time is when she is completely drunk, and Larry--nice guy that he is--puts an end to the evening before anything really happens.

So, if their romance isn't the center of the movie, what is? I really, sincerely, don't know! The film touches on some very trendy issues--unemployment; having to start over in the middle of one's life; the state of upper education--but there is never a feeling of anything huge at stake.

We never get a real sense of who Larry Crowne actually is. An ex-wife is mentioned, but she is nameless, and their break-up unexplained. He spent 20 years in the Navy as a cook, and when it's suggested he go into the culinary field again, he scoffs at it, even though that is exactly what he ends up doing as a part-time job. And, in fact, we never really know WHAT Larry wants to do with a degree if he does get it. Go back to fake Target and become a manager?

Hanks directed the movie, with a script he co-wrote with Nia Vardalos, she of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame. It's only the second feature he's directed--the first being the fun "That Thing You Do"--and he's not bad at it. Given a better script, I think he'd be a fine comedic director. He understands comedic timing, and gets some good performances from his cast. But what he's working with here is so light, so inconsequential, and so mild, it's like it was created exclusively for airplanes and grandmas.

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