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Non-Review Review: Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne isn’t a terrible movie, but rather a frustrating one. Written by, directed by, and starring, Tom Hanks, the movie seems to want to be a romantic comedy skewered towards older and more mature viewers, which is a great idea – not only because so few movies cater to that demographic, but because the few comedies that do have been proven successes. The audience is there, and it’s a great idea to unite Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, the king and queen of the classy nineties rom-com in a film that might have a more considered and reflective edge over most other romantic comedies. Unfortunately, the movie is so ridiculously pedestrian that it’s hard to work up any excitement. If the movie, rather than the character, were doing the college courses in the film, it would get graded “must do better.”

A scoot couple...

Much like the title character’s respected French Toast, all the ingredients are right there. I mean, Hanks and Roberts were among the very best at what they did. I’d certainly class Hanks (if probably not Roberts) as among the best leading actors in the history of Hollywood. The supporting cast includes Bryan Cranston, a television actor seemingly on the cusp of a well-deserved big screen breakout with the upcoming John Carter of Mars and Total Recall among others. Hell, it’s a pleasure to see Pam Grier and George Takei on screen – even if they aren’t the best supporting actors ever to grace the screen, they are still quite watchable. That Thing You Do demonstrated that Hanks had a promising future behind the camera, and his script involved a collaboration with Nia Vardalos – who, while not sporting a perfect record, was responsible for the charming My Big Fat Greek Wedding. So it’s heartbreaking that, despite all this talent, the movie ends up decidedly “meh.”

I think that part of the problem might be how by-the-numbers the movie approaches its romantic comedy formula. It’s almost like the script was written by studying good romantic comedies and building a perfect replica of their structure, but without any real enthusiasm or va-va-voom. We have one lead who is a fish out of water, coming to terms with radically changed circumstances, but with a wonderfully charming personality that wins over everybody around him. We have another lead, a cynical and jaded individual who seems to have lost all enthusiasm and romanticism, despite being part of a profession that requires large amounts of both. The movie adds a quirky supporting character who serves as a springboard for exposition, a handy plot device when necessary and the source of good advice. Coupled with that, we add a free-spirit who doesn’t care about rules, but just lives a cheerful and blissful existence.

Hail to the chef...

The lead character is given his own eccentric, but decidedly hip quirk (in this case joining a scooter gang). There is an obsticle to the relationship (one party is married in this film), but this is just a technicality rather than a moral conundrum to be solved (and the movie resolves it conveniently). There’s even a misunderstanding between the two leads in the third act, and – once said misunderstanding is resolved and the party in question proven to be innocent of the slander against them – it’s a race to get our two romantic leads together. None of that is a spoiler, by the way, because it’s the sort of rigid structure that these movies seem mandated to follow.

There’s nothing wrong with a formula. You can make an entertaining movie built on a structure like that. The problem is that the movie never really seems particularly interested or invested. It’s like the movie is just blandly telling you what unfolds, rather than engaging you and giving you a reason to care. Some of the movie’s more obvious formulaic elements are merely bland and uninteresting (the scooter gang), while others are just executed in the most mind-numbing way possible (Larry’s college classmates, which are like the blandest college stereotypes I have ever seen). Hell, I wanted to reach into the screen and yell at Larry’s “free spirited” classmate who kept throwing away and breaking his stuff – the dude is making no secret of his financial woes, so it seems rather horrible to arbitrarily throw away his phone protector and snap his glasses. Get some respect for somebody else’s property! And this character ends up running a restaurant, which Larry politely deems an economically feasible idea.

It might sound terrible, but it’s not, really. Hanks is a charming leading man. Roberts, unfortunately, seems to be on auto-pilot. However, Hanks does have a talent for staging a scene and preparing a shot – the problem is that there’s seldom a character in the frame we’re especially interested in. The actors mount a valiant struggle against the script and – against ever rational fibre of my being, and no matter how hard the script seems to push me to hate him – Hanks manages to invest a certain amount of charm in his leading character. The movie struggles to make him sympathetic with its awful “recession” plot line, but Hanks is a strong enough leading man that Crowne seems like a nice enough guy despite the fact he’s too nice. If I hung out with a guy like that in real life, he’d probably irritate the hell out of me through no fault of his own.

Hot for teacher?

Another major problem with the film is the fact it tries to insert a “relevant” plot about the recession into the film. I’ve never really thought that Hollywood “needs” to engage on topics like this, but it certainly shouldn’t patronise the way that it does here. Larry is downsized at his job, and left broke. He can’t afford his mortgage payments. He has to trade a HD television in order to buy a means of transportation. He has to work a low-paying on-call job in order to fund his way through college, as he attempts to make himself employable. On the surface, that seems like it’s a sincere acknowledgement of the financial hardships many people have found themselves in.

Except it’s not really. Larry has no dependents (despite being divorced, he was such a good guy he settled with his wife upfront), so there’s no real tension in his decision to opt for a “strategic foreclosure.” His on-call job has him miss exactly one lecture in an entire year (it does make him late for another, but since he got a warning, we can imply it never happened again). His hectic hours in college and work still leave him the freedom to socialise and have a wonderful happy time, while sleeping enough that he never seems tired. Despite the financial woes we are repeatedly reminded of, the character never seems short of cash and doesn’t seem to have to sacrifice his standard of living. In short, the movie seems to point to bankruptcy and declare that it’s “easy” for Crowne to just waltz through it.

There’s relatively little of the sense of depression one gets on becoming unemployed or being let go. There’s none of the listlessness and loss of purpose. Crowne gets laid off, hands in a few unsuccessful applications, and then decides to go to college, which he pays for with a job that doesn’t interfere with anything he’s doing, except that one time the plot needed to put a hiccup in the road. It really is a very condescending portayal of how the economic downturn impacts people – Larry practically shrugs it off. Every time one minor hurdle appears, he looks sad for five seconds and addresses it in the next scene.

A class act?

I’d almost rather the movies didn’t try to tackle situations like this, rather than being so ridiculous patronising and condescending about it. All those long-term unemployed people just need to pull themselves up with some vigour, it seems to suggest. What Crowne goes through is a horrible experience, undoubtedly, but there’s no denying that he’s comparatively lucky when measured against the real people in his situation. So it feels a little strange for the movie to expect us to feel too sorry for him.

It’s a shame, because there are some nice moments in the film. In particular, I really liked a small role from George Takei as an economics lecturer, who reminded me of a former professor I used to have – with his laugh that started out the year creepy and gradually grew into a shared class experience. Or a relatively inspired attempt to turn off the voice on a sat-nav system at a traffic light. The problem is that such moments, while nice, are unfortunately too few and far between. And, to be entirely honest, there’s nothing especially brilliant or ingenious, and most of the movie is just sort of… well, there.

Needs more drive...

So Larry Crowne is a disappointment, rather than a crowning accomplishment. Let’s hope Hanks’ next project scores a little bit higher.

2 Responses

  1. Really enjoyed your review! It was such a difficult film for me, as I really did want to like it or love it. But it was just lacking something, I think your opening line of your review saying it’s frustrating is spot on!

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