Monday, July 11, 2011

Hanks and Roberts Do Not Do It Again

Tom Hanks’ latest foray into the hearts of America is “Larry Crowne.” There’s no resemblance to Thomas Crown. There’s no affair. There’s no heist. There’s no heat. There’s no excitement, no anticipation, no worries.

Hanks plays Larry Crowne, a popular and jolly team-leader type in a familiar chain store called “U-Mart.” He walks into a meeting with management expecting to be named Employee of the Month again, only to be fired. The excuse for downsizing this 50-something guy is that he can’t go any higher in the company because he never went to college (having spent twenty years in the Navy prior to his years serving this employer). I don’t believe that for a moment, it’s clearly ageism, and this film just as clearly wants to show that anyone practicing ageism is a fool. Larry Crowne will reinvent himself. He looks unsuccessfully for a new job. He does get unemployment insurance, but that’s not enough to pay the second mortgage he took on his house in order to buy out his ex-wife. Things are not going well for Larry, a swell guy who’s having a mid-life crisis not of his own devising. The world is sticking it to him.

But Larry doesn’t take things lying down. He chats with his yard-sale addicted neighbor Lamar played boisterously yet sincerely by Cedric the Entertainer. Lamar and his wife (Taraji P. Henson) are sweet and supportive of Larry, but have no more depth than any other character in the film. Larry goes to the local community college and is encouraged to take a public speaking class, and he goes for it. He pumps endless gallons of gasoline into his gas-guzzling SUV until he sees someone else putting a pop bottle worth of gasoline into a cute little motor scooter, so he adventurously buys one second hand. He scoots into a parking place at school and meets a pretty girl young enough to be his daughter, who clearly thinks he’s cute – for an old coot – and befriends him, teaching him to dress, among other things. Don’t worry, she’s got a boyfriend.
Valderrama and Mbatha-Raw (Universal Pictures)

Feel like you’ve already heard this story? You have, it’s in the television commercials and the trailers. And like many a perfectly pleasant film, everything you ever needed to know about it is in the commercials, so when you come out of the theatre, you’re still hungry. It’s nice. Hanks is nice. Julia Roberts is nice -- she has some fun playing a grumpy gus, Mercedes the cynical, disillusioned, college professor, married to a pretty skeavy guy played sleazily by Bryan Cranston, before she slowly grows into her usual gorgeous grinning self when she finds the hope of happiness. In Larry Crowne, of course.

Wilmer Valderrama reverts to the 1950s as Dell Gordo, the leader of the motorscooter ‘gang,’ Rita Wilson is barely amusing as a caricature of a bank loan officer; Pam Grier is sultry yet oddly believable as Mercedes’ buddy and co-worker, Frances. In fact, Grier and Roberts have the most believable relationship in the film. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is cute and sassy as “Talia,” who takes Larry Crowne under her cool wing. Particularly sweet is George Takei as Dr. Matsutani, apparently a terrific economics teacher.

Do I sound grumpy? It’s a sweet movie, really. But there’s no suspense. There’s no drama. The comedy is slight. The ending is precisely obvious from about 12 minutes in. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself for 98 minutes. It’s just that there’s not much of a there there.

I feel bad not liking this feel-good film. It’s just bland. Mr. Hanks directs his actors well enough. It’s the script by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) that, while well structured, relies too heavily on the actors to create characters from the lifeless forms on the page. Every character performs a purpose to further the plot – the development of Larry Crowne just when he thought he was done – but none of them are particularly real or interesting, despite the charm of the actors. So if you want a few giggles, some smiles along with your air conditioning, and an assured (I mean, really, have you seen the poster?) happy, hopeful ending, go ahead, see Larry Crowne. But eat beforehand and make reservations for afterward.

~ Molly Matera, craving a fulfilling film.

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