Universal // 2011 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 16th, 2011
You're never too old to learn.
Fifteen years after writing and directing his first feature (That Thing You Do!, still one of my all-time favorites and one of the movies I've seen more times than any other), Tom Hanks finally gets back behind the camera for his second effort, the 2011 romantic comedy Larry Crowne. Does he yield the same results?
After being downsized from his job at a giant retail chain for not having a college education, 40-something Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan) is left without a lot of options. He spent most of his formative years as a cook in the Navy, and doesn't possess many marketable skills. On the advice of his neighbor, Larry enrolls in community college courses -- most notably a public speaking course taught by bitter alcoholic Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts, Mystic Pizza), who catches his eye. With the help of quirky new classmate Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Undercovers), Larry remakes himself and begins the second act of his life.
I've seen several movies worse than Larry Crowne in 2011, but few that were more frustrating. It's not just that I'm disappointed in this as a follow-up to That Thing You Do! (I am), or that I expect more from Tom Hanks (I do). It's that the movie doesn't need to fall as flat as it does. It's just one or two rewrites from being something...well, maybe not great, but certainly not as messy as this.
I'm not even sure what movie Larry Crowne wants to be. On paper, I think it's supposed to be a movie about a guy who is downsized (relevant) and goes back to school later on in life, where he forms a kind of makeshift family and ends up falling in love with his professor. Everyone learns something from everyone. The end. I'm down for a movie like that -- it's nothing new, but there's a timeliness to it and, especially with the cast he put together, Tom Hanks could at least spin it into something sweet and charming. Here's the problem: Larry Crowne is not that movie.
Let's start with the character of Larry himself, who violates the first rule of screenwriting: he is as passive a character as I've seen in a movie in a long time. Larry is only ever acted upon in the movie, and never really takes charge of his own life. I'm OK with a movie in which the character is passive for a while before learning to control his own destiny, but, again, Larry Crowne is not that movie. Someone else fires him. OK. Someone else suggests he attend community college. Another character even chooses his classes for him. Eventually, he meets Talia, who is the film's crippling conceit, but more on that in a minute. Talia changes the way he dresses. She gets him to cut his hair. She gets him involved in a "scooter gang," because that is a thing. When he has his first potentially romantic encounter with Ms. Tainot, it is only at her insistence. Again, this could all be fine if eventually Larry comes to realize that the clothes and the haircut and the scooters aren't him, and that he needs to figure out who and what he wants to be as he redefines his own life at middle age. This scene never comes.
Then there is the Julia Roberts problem. I like Julia Roberts in the right role -- like Tom Hanks, she's good at being a movie star -- and I get that Hanks wanted her to play somewhat against type in Larry Crowne. She's an alcoholic, stuck in an unhappy marriage. She's grouchy and cynical and sarcastic. She is, in a word, miserable. Again, I'm fine with all of that, because movie conventions dictate that she will soften and find things that make her happy and return to her pre-miserable self. Without spoiling anything, I will say that any change Roberts undergoes in the movie comes far, far too late in the movie, when it no longer makes sense why anyone would still tolerate her presence. (Side note: if it sounds like I'm penalizing Larry Crowne for not doing a better job of adhering to conventions, please understand that this is not the case. Larry Crowne doesn't fail because it bucks convention. Larry Crowne fails because it wants to be conventional but does it wrong.) She is told near the film's end that she is a great teacher. No, she is not. She is a terrible teacher. Even the "Ms. Tainot has got her groove back and if really committed to teaching again!" montage consists of her doing warm-up exercises with her students. Not inspiring them. Not teaching them. Mostly, she sits in the back of the class, hung over, rolling her eyes as her students give speeches. Seize the day she does not. Just kidding. Dead Poets Society is the worst.
Which brings us to Talia, the single worst character in the movie and the embodiment of much of what is wrong in Larry Crowne. Nothing against Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is very pretty and does what she can with the role, but it's a terrible character -- an aggressively annoying writer's construct whose only function is to be quirky and offbeat and dispense little verbal nuggets of terribleness like "'Tis gratis!" She is not a real person. She insists on renaming everyone (Larry Crowne becomes "Lance Corona"), because that's adorable? She only buys clothes at resale stores and vintage thrift shops, because that's what cool people do. Everything about her is surface. Every time she is on screen, the movie is worse. She is a fraud, and yet we are to believe that she is a positive force of change in the life of Larry Crowne. There is a moment in which she gets a tattoo that does not say what she thinks it means, and I really hoped that would be the breaking point for Larry, where he would see that she is full of nonsense and that all her hip little sayings and platitudes are based in a severely limited understanding of how the world works and that she hasn't actually helped his life in any way (she hasn't made it any worse, either, because that's the kind of movie this is -- it commits to nothing) and swears her off for good. Nope. It's just a silly little exchange, and Talia is allowed to go on being her terrible self. She's rewarded for it, actually. She makes a choice that flies in the face of everything Larry Crowne has been about, but still succeeds. So why are we watching any of this?
The screenplay for the movie was co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardolos, she of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame (which Hanks produced). So while I would love to lay all the failings of the movie at her incredibly hacky feet, it wouldn't be fair to absolve Hanks of the role he played in botching the movie. Even if Vardolos is the architect of all the movie's cutesy, gimmicky conceits -- like the scooter gang that Larry joins, or the neighbor played by Cedric the Entertainer who is constantly having a yard sale, or Larry's awful classmate Steve DiBiasi, who is stoned a lot of the time and resembles not so much a real human being so much as a comic druggie from a late '90s sitcom. Very little of Larry Crowne takes place in any recognizable reality, as a matter of fact, but instead some sort of alt-reality dreamed up by screenwriters. This is not intentional, mind you. The movie is not a fable or a fantasy, like the vastly superior Tom Hanks movie Joe Versus the Volcano. This movie is meant to take place in the real world. It does not.
Universal's new Blu-ray of Larry Crowne is somewhat better than the movie itself. The film is presented in a 1080p full HD transfer and its original 2.40:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, and suffers from a couple of problems. Skin tones tend to look somewhat orange (though some of that can probably be attributed to the photography), a few scenes fall victim to crush and the first few minutes of the movie (most of the stuff with Larry at his retail job) don't look as good as a new HD release should. After that rough patch, the disc settles into a pleasant but unremarkable high def transfer, with good detail and a bright, sharp image. The DTS-HD audio track is about the same, getting the job done with what is pretty much the bare minimum of what we've come to expect from the format. Dialogue is clear and audible, but the track lacks any real dynamics. I guess it's fitting for a movie like Larry Crowne.
Only a few bonus features have been included (the movie underperformed at the box office, so I would have been surprised if Universal really gave it the bells-and-whistles treatment), and they're mostly of the promotional variety. There's a short "making of" featurette, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage that confirms something I suspected the first time I saw the movie: it was more fun to make than it is to watch. Finally, about eight minutes of deleted scenes have been included, most of which were probably cut out for pacing reasons. It's too bad, actually, because there are a few scenes that might have added something to the movie -- Larry's firing is afforded more resonance (before going off the rails in a scene with two cops; the film almost can't help from straying off into it's own alt-reality), and Julia Roberts gets a short but nice scene with Bryan Cranston that at least hints at the fact that these people are awful and hateful towards one another all of the time.
After all I've said about the movie, I don't even hate Larry Crowne. It frustrates me because it could be better. It should be better. But I have enough affection for both Tom Hanks and the romantic comedy that I find the movie watchable, even when its choices are consistently making me cringe. The worst part about the movie is that it takes so much of what Hanks made into assets in That Thing You Do! (natural performances; smart, observant dialogue) and turns them into liabilities. After 15 years, I couldn't have been more excited for Larry Crowne. The movie broke my heart.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes