If you are old enough to be bored with intergalactic robots yet young enough to remember when a kiss was still a kiss, then you’ll enjoy, Larry Crowne. Admitted, it does have the world’s most boring title–go figure why smart people would spend a small fortune making a movie yet give it a title that’s more forgettable than week-old popcorn. Nevertheless, insubstantial, non-controversial and safe as it is, the film is like a cooling zephyr in these dog days of blazing film excess.
A clever opening montage reveals life behind the scenes of a discount store –read Wal-Mart. We see super-employee Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) cheerfully performing the myriad tasks of a conscientious retail associate–picking up litter in the parking lot, wiping toddler vomit off the coin-operated palomino, playing pass-em-along with other employees to build team spirit while keeping the shelves stocked. It’s clear why Larry has been named Employee of the Month nine times.
So when Larry is called into the employee break room for a talk with management, he gleefully expects another award. Alas, he gets a thwack on the head–he’s fired. All Larry’s good work means nothing to corporate pigeon-holers–they’ve decided that since he doesn’t have a college degree, he can’t possibly be on the fast track. His years of faithful service to the company, as well as his 20 years of service to the country in the Navy, mean nothing. “Times are tough,” the smug executives say. Nothing personal, of course.
Larry is devastated and goes home to curl up in a ball and cry, a scene that makes it perfectly clear that getting fired is one of the worst things that can happen in life. Soon Larry learns what millions of other Americans have experienced lately–no matter how good you might have been in your last job, finding a new one is often impossible, particularly if you are a “mature” worker. No amount of pounding the pavement is going to pay the mortgage Larry took over when his wife divorced him and he can’t afford to drive his gas-guzzling car. Yep, times are tough.
Larry’s next-door neighbor, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), has a thriving “garage sale” business every day at his house. With a bargain-priced copy of the schedule of the local community college, Lamar convinces Larry to go to school. He ends up enrolling in Speech #217, The Art of Informal Remarks.
The teacher is Meredith Tainot (Julia Roberts). Cynical, depressed, and sometimes hung-over, Mrs. Tainot is deadened by the community college system and her lackluster students. She shares her angst with an understanding sister professor, played by Pam Grier, who is always so terrific it’s a shame her part wasn’t bigger. Pulling on her last reserves of professional commitment, Mrs. Tainot is determined to inspire her latest batch of uninterested students.
Making Ms. Roberts famous dazzling smile a rare occasion in this movie is husband Dean, (Bryan Cranston) a low-grade monster, who thinks researching Internet porn and writing comments on blogs makes him a writer. How did these two end up staying married for years? Good question, but back story and deep characterization are not in this film’s purpose. Co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), the script has no other purpose than to be a feel-good trifle, showing that nice people can turn misery into happiness if they find one another.
Mr. Hanks is also the director of the film. It seems he rounded up a bunch of deserving young actors in Hollywood and gave them a chance to be in a movie. They did right by him. The running gags in the film are mini-comedy sketches showing the students learning how to give speeches–the cumulative effect is hilarious. Ms. Roberts displays her own considerable, and usually underrated, acting chops in the way her mobile features silently react to each of the speeches.
Larry is the oldest student in the school. Because he is too dorky for his own good, a sweet, younger student takes him under her wing. This is Talia, a budding fashion trendsetter played by sparkling English-born South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Talia transforms Larry from a middle-aged geek who tucks in his short-sleeved shirts to a middle-aged retro fashion plate with a goofy, but stylish haircut. She also gets him to join her motor scooter club. She and her boy friend, watchful Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderamma) tool around town all day hunting for thrift store treasures.
Larry is also taking an economics class from a creepily grinning martinet named Dr. Matsutani (George Takei). Methodically Larry puts what he learns in class into action in his life–returns his house to the bank and helps Talia write a business plan to start her own resale clothing business. If nothing else, Larry proves that education can be transformed into practical good.
In a series of predictable but heart-warming scenes, Larry and Mrs. Tainot get to know one another. It’s somewhat easy actually–neither one of them has children, or spouses, or even a pet to tie them to their pasts. Unlike most middle- aged persons on the planet, they are free to pursue their new lives They kiss at her door, but Larry, being the gentleman that he is, insists that the slightly inebriated Mrs.Tainot go inside her door by himself. He is so thrilled by his kiss that he does a wild rumble dance on her porch that makes Tom Cruise’s couch jumping look tame.
There’s nothing heavy in this movie. No pronouncements about the scourge of unemployment, no drawn-out suffering about the departure of spouses. For this reason, most critics have been pretty harsh on this movie. Unfairly, I think because the film makes no pretensions other than to be what it is–a diversion from the harsh realities of life. All it says is you can start over again if the rug is pulled out from under you–a theme that older audiences appreciate already and younger ones might need to learn. If you don’t see Larry Crowne on the big screen, definitely put it on your DVD list.