Somewhere in LARRY CROWNE, there is a darker, more robust film lurking. Fortunately, with director and co-writer Tom Hanks in the title role, rather than hopeless piffle, this lightweight bit of escapism almost takes on the grander trappings of an optimistic fable for our times. A slight one, to be sure, and certainly not one to be taken as a serious solution for hard times here in the real world, but full of a counter-intuitive sunny optimism that is at odds with the tale itself.
It begins promisingly enough here in the real world with the eponymous Larry being dismissed from his job at a big box warehouse store because he never went to college. That he is an exemplary employee who does the right thing because it IS the right thing, not because it’s company policy, matters not a whit. Neither does his superb people skills, demonstrated in a bubbly montage, nor his can-do attitude that encompasses all that is best in the American Dream. Choosing the Navy right out of high school and serving faithfully for 20 years gets him the boot. It’s more than a blow to his self-esteem and the shaking of his faith in said American Dream of working hard and getting rewarded for it, he’s living in a house worth less than the mortgage on it, and facing an economy where even neatly pressed pants and an ebullient attitude won’t get him another job.
Taking the reason for his termination to heart, he enrolls in his local community college and finds himself in Speech 217, otherwise known as the Art of Informal Remarks. The teacher, Mercedes, is a gloomy and acerbic knockout played by Julia Roberts with a grim determination to discover all the least attractive qualities in her character. Though demanding that her students care about the coursework -- she not only writes the word on the board, but she also underlines it several times -- she herself cares for little beyond the booze slushie that she concocts upon arriving home to a husband (Bryan Cranston) who has spent the day enjoying soft-core porn instead of working in the new media he keeps burbling on about. She does, however, care and care a great deal, about her assumption that Larry is hooking up with Talia (Gug Mbetha-Raw), the perky and fashion-conscious classmate from Economics 1 by whom he was adopted during his first five minutes on campus.
Larry’s divorced, his teacher’s unhappily married, and that they will get together as the answer to each other’s prayers is a given in fluff such as this. How they get there is a badly conceived process, though. Mercedes is aggressively unpleasant, sour of spirit and abrasive of interaction. When fate and Talia conspire to arrange that first kiss between her and Larry, it smacks of such contrivance as to leave the viewer’s mouth agape with wonder, and not in a good way, at how it springs out of nowhere. The prevailing emotions are anger and spite and only Hanks’ ability to soften the blow makes it at all endurable.
The good thing about a fumbling film, and this is a reach to be sure, is that it offers the audience the opportunity to appreciate what a marvelous actor Hanks is. He is playing his trademark everyman here, a basically decent guy to whom bad things have happened. There is emotional depth to Larry’s resilience, complexity to the sincerity of his positive attitude. This is a character that may have been sketchily written to suffer the fallout of a bad economy, but Hanks has filled in the nooks and crannies, making a affable good guy anything but uninteresting. Instead, he is someone who has chosen to stay positive while acknowledging the other options. When Hanks smiles, the world lights up. When he is disappointed, you can hear the angels weep.
The story itself devolves from trenchant to blandly unrealistic. Larry’s fellow students are a squeaky-clean in the Stepford mold with no serious problems. Nice, not too quirky, and unaccountably delighted to know a middle-aged man who shares their love of motor scooters. Even dressing Wilmer Valderrama in biker leathers and reflective shades gives him no more menace than a glass of milk. George Takei, on the other hand, as Larry’s mildly eccentric Economics professor is more menacing, purring out the basics of financial management while coldly surveying his class as though calculating which among them would make for the weakest prey.
No cautionary tale is to be found in LARRY CROWNE. A few gentle paybacks take care of themselves, and the message as a whole is a mix of the advantages of a little learning, and of keeping one’s chin up no matter what. The real reason to see it, the only reason really, is the complete pleasure of watching Tom Hanks demonstrate why he’s won two Oscars™. And then wonder how he got himself entangled in this mess Oh wait, co-writer Nia Vardalos is best friends with Rita Wilson, who is also Mrs. Tm Hanks. So not only is Hanks demonstrating what a good actor he is, he's also demonstrating what a loving husband he is. What a guy.