Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cedric the Entertainer, George Takei, Bryan Cranston
Writers: Tom Hanks & Nia Vardalos
Director: Tom Hanks
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: July 1, 2011
There are some movies that are perfectly sound in premise and execution, yet they can only get major studio production/release if they have powerhouses at the wheel. Happily for LARRY CROWNE, Tom Hanks as co-writer/director/star is as powerful as they come in the film industry, which is why this modest, genial comedy with dramatic elements comes to us well-produced (so it looks good without being unduly slick) and well-publicized (so it’s easy for audiences to find).
Hanks plays the title character, a very decent but otherwise average man who throws himself wholeheartedly into whatever he does. Larry has a job at a big-box store, but he gets downsized with the excuse that he doesn’t have a college education, so he can’t be promoted, and the company won’t keep employees they can’t promote. Reeling from the shock of unemployment, Larry enrolls in community college. At the suggestion of the dean, he takes on an economics course taught by smart if self-promoting Professor Matsutani (a wonderfully cast George Takei) and a course in “casual” speaking, i.e., how to be interesting on a topic, taught by Professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts). Mercy has her own issues, specifically an Internet porn-addicted spouse (Bryan Cranston) who isn’t doing a very good job of hiding his own frustrations in their marriage. As Larry learns to downsize, he bonds with some of his fellow students, starts having new life adventures – and finds himself very drawn to Ms. Tainot.
In some ways, LARRY CROWNE is by design and effect psychological comfort food for the newly unemployed – embrace change, get clever with your new choices, revive old skills you haven’t used in awhile and things will get better. This recipe won’t work for everybody in the real world, because not everybody has Larry’s background or the equivalent thereof, but it’s credible within the parameters of the story. It helps immeasurably that the role allows Hanks to put forward the profoundly likable, warm persona he can put forth when the situation calls for it. We cheer for Larry because he approaches everything with an open mind, modesty, intelligence and sincere consideration for the people around him.
Roberts is as usual stunningly gorgeous, without looking out of place at the college. We like Mercy, even though she’s saddled with a subplot that leaves her wrongly jealous of one of Larry’s young classmates. This adds neither comedy nor a rational barrier to a relationship with Larry (concerns about teacher-student propriety are enough for that) and just makes her come off as egregiously judgmental. Also, while Cranston is terrific actor, neither he nor Roberts can make the caddish husband/fed-up wife material feel fresh.
This aside, LARRY CROWNE doesn’t push too hard. The screenplay by Hanks & Nia Vardalos is constructed in a way that flows pleasantly, keeping us engaged without trying for false suspense. Hanks’ direction supports the strengths of his actors, himself included, and has a sense of pace and momentum that lets us feel like we’re moving forward, even when Larry doesn’t know what may come next.
Larry’s adventures with fellow students – Gugu Mbatha-Raw is appealing as a free spirit who takes Larry under her platonic wing – are presented in a way that captures the feel of unexpected camaraderie. The classroom sequences are entertaining without going over the top.
LARRY CROWNE is agreeable, nimble and oddly reassuring, a big-studio comedy/drama that is funny but refreshingly unemphatic in its jokes and emotional beats.
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