Thursday, June 30, 2011
Review: "Larry Crowne"
Here's a movie for adults that's warm and enjoyable, but has brains and ambition. Because it stars two immensely likeable actors, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, you might think it's about two middle-aged people falling for each other. You'd be wrong.
Although "Larry Crowne" takes the form of a romantic comedy-drama, it is less about the intersection of these two characters than the people they discover themselves to be at this moment in their life's trajectory. Their coupling is a byproduct of their respective journeys, not the purpose behind it.
Hanks directs (and produces, and co-wrote with Nia Vardalos) with a soft touch but not a soft head. "Larry Crowne" is full of life lessons, but is clever about it, and flouts its characters' sense of shared community without going all it-takes-a-village muddle-headed.
It's like fancy French toast -- comfort food with a dollop of aspiration.
Hanks plays the title character, a fortysomething guy happily working as a low-level manager at Umart, meaning he wears a bright red T-shirt with his name on it and is called a "team leader." Unfortunately, Larry does not have a college degree -- he joined the Navy out of high school and retired after 20 years as a cook -- so his bosses decide that since he cannot advance any further, they have to let him go. The fact that Larry is a tireless worker who attacks his job with zeal does not matter. Somehow, the Umart folks think they are doing him a favor.
This may sound unbelievably absurd, but the capacity for ridiculousness of group decisions knows no bounds. I know a guy who got a job at a non-profit straight out of college, loved working there and over the course of 20 years earned his way up to the number two position. During some nasty political squabbles, the board approached him about jettisoning the executive director and moving this fellow up to the top spot. Taking a principled stand, he refused the promotion, saying it was not fair to accept a post currently occupied by someone else. After more deliberations, the board decided to keep the person they'd just been trying to give the boot, and fired him instead. The nature of the collective mind is inherently schizophrenic.
Larry takes it hard, especially when he finds the job market unwelcoming in the extreme. He's divorced but not bitter about it, and owes the bank a pocketful after buying out his ex-wife's half of the house.
So he decides to enroll at East Valley Community College. At the urging of the dean of students, who has more than a little huckster in him, Larry signs up for classes in speech, economics and composition. Master these three skills, he is told, and he can write his ticket.
The econ class is taught by a comically haughty professor (George Takei) who recites the same dry lessons year in and year out, and smiles because each student crammed into his massive classroom are required to buy his book. We never hear about the writing class, so all hope rests with the speech course.
The professor of Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks is one Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who began bordering on burnout a few years ago, and is medium-crispy now. Her greatest hope is that the minimum 10 students will not show up, and she can cancel the class -- which Larry dashes by showing up late. Mercy's first instruction to her students is to care, but she obviously stopped awhile ago.
Mercy takes an anti-shine to Larry at first, thinking he's an old letch using the mid-life college shtick to hit on impressionable young things like Talia, an effervescent lass played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in one of those performances that grab you and make you go, "More, please."
Truth is, Talia is more of a teacher to Larry than Mercy is, fixing the feng shui at his crowded home and giving his hair and clothes some zip. Mercy is perhaps biased because her husband (Bryan Cranston) really is an old letch, who gave up writing books to blog but really looks at porn all the time.
I have on occasion been accused of being too much of a literalist as a critic, and I will now demonstrate why.
Larry is very specific about being a 20-year military man, meaning he retired in his late 30s, presumably with a pension. Anyone remotely familiar with a career in the armed forces knows about the 20-years-and-out routine. Having known or read about people in this situation, and with a little research and conjecture, I determined Larry's payments from the Navy would be around 30 grand a year, plus free medical. That's not a ton, but should be enough for him to get by in the short run.
It's persnickety, I know, but I needed a line where Larry says something like, "And my Navy pension will barely cover the mortgage." Otherwise, don't introduce the 20-year thing without acknowledging the reality of it.
And on the question of Mercy's horndog husband, it is not really possible for any man to watch porn literally all day long. He could certainly see a lot of it, maybe even have a psychological addiction to it, but there would be spaces where, shall we say, his desires are at least temporarily diminished. It's just the way things work.
Things go on with Larry and Mercy, but I'll leave that for you to discover. They rotate in each others' orbits, with that gravitational pull always there but not shifting the heavens.
"Larry Crowne" is a romantic movie, but it's less about the familiar, tired tropes of cinematic love than the serendipitous passion we find in our lives when our plans end up in pieces on aisle 12.
3.5 stars out of four