Sunday, 3 July 2011

'Larry Crowne' review:

Way back in 1996, Tom Hanks wrote and directed 'That Thing You Do!', a fun, colourful and breezy homage to the mid-60s rock and roll scene which charted the rise and fall of a fictional one-hit-wonder group. It wasn't a huge commercial success, with Hanks only taking a small part and casting a host of relatively unknown actors in the lead roles, but it was stylish and evoked the feeling of that era superbly - at least as it exists in our romanticised, collective imagination. Hanks also co-wrote some of the film's punchy musical numbers, with the project feeling like a genuine labour of love and the work of a film star taking time out to do something smaller and more personal. As if to confirm this suspicion, Hanks' production company, Playtone, is named after the fictional record label in that movie.

As should be obvious, 'That Thing You Do!' is a movie for which I maintain a deep affection fifteen years down the line. So much so that nothing could prepare me for the Academy Award winner's second feature as director: the goodwill-sappingly abysmal 'Larry Crowne'. Co-written with Nia 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' Vardalos, 'Larry Crowne' is a "feel-good" movie about well-meaning, middle aged Larry (Hanks) who - in a contrivance of the plot - loses his low-wage supermarket job when his employers discover his lack of a college education. Without a job, the goofy-yet-loveable Larry decides to enrol in college where he meets, and falls in love with, inspirational teacher Mercedes Tainot, played by Julia Roberts (alongside whom Hanks starred in 'Charlie Wilson's War').

I take no pleasure in criticising this already maligned film, both out of affection for its star and because it is so "nice": smiley, wide-eyed and unfailingly good-natured. Yet there is really no defence for 'Larry Crowne' that I can think of. At its core is a deeply patronising everyman story trying to imbue us with post-recession hope by showing a guileless hero's effortless 'Forrest Gump' style ascent from joblessness to gainful employment. Immediately after losing his income Larry starts attending his local college (how is pays for this is unaddressed). As soon as he realises his car is too expensive to run, he decides to buy a scooter and, as luck would have it, finds his next door neighbour (Cedric the Entertainer) has one knocking around. He then trades in his flat-screen television for it in a calculated move which echoes the 1980s advice of Norman Tebbit ("get off your sofa and find a job" is the clear message here). And, literally, as soon as he pulls up to college on said scooter, he attracts the attention of a wholesome gang of young, beautiful scooter friends who love him immediately and devote all their time to re-arranging his furniture, his wardrobe and his love-life.

The film trundles along in this fashion with Larry quickly becoming a star student, finding another part-time job (again, effortlessly) and having a whole bunch of fun times with his gang of super-awesome friends! Getting sacked was the best thing that ever happened to this guy. I can see the probable logic behind this depiction of being laid-off and it goes something like "people don't want to see something depressing about unemployment right now - the people need hope". But not only does this betray a condescending view of the public, the crisis and resolution depicted in Larry Crowne is too far removed from reality to function on this level. It offers nothing but a bland fantasy of inevitable success and faith in the American dream (crucially Larry is never shown to be given charity, though the source of this former "U-Mart" employee's relative affluence is never revealed).

The film's gags are pretty weak too, with the audience expected to chuckle as Hanks drives a scooter into a yard sale, knocking things over, or when he puts on a funny hat. It further suffers from the charmlessness of Hanks' co-star Julia Roberts who does her best to look unimpressed by Larry's antics, and her students' good humour, throughout the movie, echoing her frosty, lustless turn in 'Notting Hill'. Save the occasional flash of that trademark smile, Roberts comes across as a bit of a downer and the sub-plot involving the break-up of her marriage is heavy-handed and unsympathetic. Some of the oddball supporting characters are rather more winning, such as the scooter gang's leader played by Wilmer Valderrama and George Takei's economics professor, but they are the cinematic equivalent of the orchestra on the Titanic.

The most surprising thing about 'Larry Crowne' though, considering the pedigree of those involved, is that bits of it seem so amateurish. For example, one particularly frivolous shot had me baffled: during a conversation between Larry and a friend in a diner, Hanks cuts to a hitherto unseen third party who delivers one line before disappearing from view again for the remainder of the film. Who is this mysterious man and why is he introduced to us in full close-up, delivering a line that suggests he is a familiar character and a long-time friend of the protagonist? This is unlikely given the amount of preparation and thought that goes into making a film, but it feels as though this shot choice was arrived at randomly. On this showing, 'Larry Crowne' is not the work of a director with any particular vision.

As the film bumbles into its final twenty minutes it becomes a simple box-ticking exercise in which any and all loose ends are tied up whether the story needs it or not. The dumb oaf who fires Larry at the beginning is shown to have become a pizza delivery man, whilst Roberts' under-subscribed college class gains popularity for some reason seemingly unconnected to shown events and her porn-loving ex-husband must, of course, also get his comeuppance. Here Hanks acts like some sort of omnipotent moraliser punishing the wicked and rewarding the noble in a world without troublesome nuance. In 'Larry Crowne' a wholesome, good and friendly man is rewarded for being wholesome, good and friendly in a wholesome, good and friendly land. In the immortal words of Bill Hicks: "go back to bed America".

'Larry Crowne' is out now in the UK and has been rated a '12A' by the BBFC.

Better days:

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