Larry Crowne Should Have Been Better
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 1 Jul
DVD Release Date: November 15, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: July 1, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sexual content)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 99 min.
Director: Tom Hanks
Actors: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wilmer Valderrama, George Takei, Bryan Cranston, Rami Malek, Rita Wilson
In case you hadn’t noticed, movies have long catered to the teen audience. Especially during the summer months, when kids are out of school, major studio films emphasize spectacle, minimize dialogue and maximize special effects.
Studios have attempted to buck this trend by releasing films that appeal to older audiences. However, the trouble is that these films tend to not be inexpensive to produce and thus often struggle to break even, much less make a profit. Contributing the lion’s share of the problem is the stars, who command large salaries but don’t deliver the big audiences they once did. Thus, the box-office grosses haven’t justified the money paid to the talent.
A good example of this conundrum is Julia Roberts, who was put under the box-office microscope in 2009 when she starred with Clive Owen in Duplicity, a romantic comedy that was considered an underperformer in terms of ticket sales. The film was released around the same time as State of Play (a Russell Crowe vehicle) and The Soloist (Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx). These films were all aimed at adult audiences—and all proved disappointing. Were adults no longer interested in going to the movies? Perhaps they were leading an exodus away from theaters, tired of the hassles of dealing with unruly patrons. Maybe they’d rather stay home and watch videos.
Then something changed. Adult audiences have returned to the cinema. During the first half of 2011, older viewers helped drive ticket sales of Oscar nominees like True Grit, The King’s Speech, Black Swan and The Fighter. This trend is expected to only grow stronger with retirement of 78 million Baby Boomers—a generation that grew up going to the movies and that still values the experience of seeing films at the theater.
Larry Crowne is tailor made for this growing audience segment. Co-starring Roberts and Tom Hanks, two of the biggest stars of the last twenty years, the film feels like a throwback to an era before 3D glasses became standard equipment at the multiplex. Hanks directs the film (he directed the 1996 feature That Thing You Do!, as well as installments of the TV miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon), and he also co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos (My Life in Ruins).
While Hanks’ star still burns bright, he hasn’t exactly been critic-proof in recent years. Back in 2004, his star turns in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal and the Coen brothers’ remake of The Ladykillers were received coolly, at best, by both critics and audiences. Hanks and Roberts have recent success with literary adaptations (Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code films, Roberts in Eat Pray Love), but nothing to match their earlier blockbusters. Could a film with both of them on-screen bring back some of the old magic?
Not with Larry Crowne, a fitfully effective romantic comedy that should have been better than it is. Hanks stars as Larry, a longtime worker at retail chain UMart who, lacking a college degree, is let go after being told he has nowhere to go in the organization. Mercedes Tainot (Roberts) is in the midst of her own midlife crisis. Not only does the community-college teacher complain bitterly about having to teach an 8 a.m. class (the horror!), but her marriage has been irreparably ruptured by a husband (Bryan Cranston) who spends his days blogging and looking at pictures of big-breasted women on his computer.
Larry, facing financial problems that include the potential loss of his home, decides to enroll in community college, where he ends up in Mercedes’ speech class. His fellow students include a cadre of different character types who provide comic relief and who slowly come out of their shells. Larry also enrolls in an economics class overseen by a cackling, cell-phone-seizing teacher (George Takei). He’s befriended by Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman intent on bringing out a wilder side to the buttoned-down Larry. She invites him to join a scooter gang led by her jealous boyfriend, Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama). What comes of these new relationships? A few chances for the boyfriend to glare suspiciously at Larry whenever Larry innocently looks in Talia’s direction.
Like everything and everyone else in Larry Crowne, Dell Gordo is never a serious threat to Larry. We know Larry will find his way through his thicket of problems. We know he’ll be OK even if he loses his home. We know he’ll end up with Mercedes because—well, because Mercedes is played by Julia Roberts. So it’s little surprise when the film brings the two characters together after a night when Mercedes’ drinking leaves her feeling more uninhibited than usual. The problem is that the romance is unconvincing. Sure, Mercedes is in a bad marriage, but what does she see in Larry? And what does he see in her? Although Mercedes is physically attractive, she’s unremittingly unpleasant toward everyone in her life, including her students. Why is Larry so intent on winning her? Why would Larry kiss the drunken Mercedes, then reject a chance to sleep with her after telling her they need to “do the right thing” morally, only to do a happy dance outside Mercedes’ door because he’d kissed the still-married teacher?
And what, exactly, does the film want to say about the economic crisis? While a movie like Up in the Air tried to show the pain of downsizing and the personal and psychological toll it takes on the people involved, Larry Crowne never seriously invests in the financial impact of downsizing on Larry. Larry’s neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) comes closest to providing wisdom to Larry, telling him that Larry’s divorce has only complicated his life, and that he should have stayed married. But that character, too, is in the film primarily as comic relief, living off of earlier game-show winnings and the hard bargains he drives as part of an endless yard sale. The character is more about cutting up than he is about doling out life lessons.
Larry Crowne wants Larry to move past the things associated with his earlier marriage, and those things apparently include his home. It wants Larry to feel liberated, so it has him firmly confront a loan officer (Rita Wilson, Hanks' real-life wife) who may be trying to get him to keep his house at all costs. He tells her he’s prepared for foreclosure. This supposed signal of financial prudence is a head-scratcher. Are we, the audience, supposed to cheer Larry’s behavior?
Everything Must Go, a film from earlier this year, did a better job of showing a character’s similar struggles with life’s disappointments, but that film was much more narrowly focused (to its benefit) than is Larry Crowne, which wants to be a socially-relevant romantic comedy. The problem is that the social relevance is poorly executed, the romance has no spark and the comedy—the best thing Larry Crowne has going for it—too sporadic, with punch lines that become increasingly predictable.
On the positive side, Hanks’ film is rather gentle and both he and Roberts still have great screen presence. What the film needed was a bit more edge, a little less sap and a much sharper focus. As it is, Larry Crowne spreads itself too thin in trying to appeal to too many audience segments. A more disciplined script and director would have served the film well, but with Hanks serving as director, co-writer and star, Larry Crowne stands as an example of how star-driven vehicles can suffer from bloat. It’s not a terrible film, but it should have been much better than it is.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; the “f” word; “tukus”; “buttocks”; a cell phone ring plays the song “Stroke Me”; “kiss my a-s”; “hell”; crude term for a man’s penis.
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: A few scenes of pipe smoking; Mercedes drinks often and is called “Booze-zilla” by her husband; speaking about the high point of her day, Mercedes says, “I’m drinking it”; a student makes a couple of veiled references to drug use; a verbal reference to “demon rum.”
- Sex/Nudity: Mercedes’ husband looks at scantily-clad women on his computer; his wife accuses him of looking at pornography, and the husband says it’s “barely porn”; he says he has a thing for large-breasted women; passionate kissing, sometimes under the influence of alcohol; we see Larry’s rear end, covered by underwear, while he tries on some pants; encouragement to Larry to “cop a feel”; Larry kisses an inebriated Mercedes but refuses to come into her home, saying it’s time for both of them “to do the right thing”; a tattoo shown on a woman’s lower back.
- Violence/Crime: None.
Religion/Morals: A co-worker of Larry’s says he and the other men are “getting our clocks cleaned by our ex-wives”; a friend asks Mercedes what sin she committed that caused her to have to teach an 8 a.m. class; Lamar tells Larry that the best way to avoid divorce problems is to stay married; Mercedes proceeds to divorce her husband and pursues a relationship with Larry.
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