7/5/11

Review: Larry Crowne (2011)


Tom Hanks's Larry Crowne is a solid, charming recession fantasy with quite a bit more to it than may first meet the eye. Featuring Hanks as Crowne, Julia Roberts as his speech teacher at community college in the Valley and a supporting cast of wonderful actors with consequential parts to play, Larry Crowne manages to be a very good human story with elements of whimsy and lots of truth, well worth seeing. Directed by Hanks nearly invisibly, with a delightful script by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Larry Crowne is deeply wonderful, if not quite a perfect four-star film, assured and balanced quite well at the confluence of comic fantasy and current econonomic realities.

The previews for the film don't promise much, but I tried hard and couldn't think how one might change them to make the film seem more promising briefly. It's a character study, and mostly of Hanks's Crowne (though other characters get their due, as well), so the totality of the performance and how the main character is written are what end up being really important, not necessarily anything that could be easily condensed for a commercial.

Larry Crowne is a sort of Everyman, with exceptions, a regular guy who loves his job at U-Mart, and is good at it. So everybody's surprised when he loses it because, without a college degree (and though he served in the Navy for 20 years), he's not on the track for advancement beyond his current position. We learn that this is not the first hint of trouble in Larry's life as a whole. His wife left him some time ago, prompting him to take out a loan to purchase her share of their home, meaning he's freshly alone as well as "underwater" on his mortgage on a gorgeous if modest suburban house.

But this is not a movie in which "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" would play well, so we're lucky the soundtrack has a lot of Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne songs on it instead. Hanks brings his astonishing abilities as an actor, and an eye for detail as a writer and director to the part, with marvelous dedication and aplomb, making Larry Crowne an Everyman with a lot more to him than that (still-valid) analytical category might suggest as limiting.

These two or three setbacks and trying circumstances are a bit of a sleight-of-hand trick, plotwise, used effectively to cut ties with Crowne's past and force the audience to see him as a single person, working on himself when this is the task he's faced with. Jerry Maguire and last year's worthwhile The Company Men are somewhat similar films, but Larry Crowne is more patient, amiable, silly, fun and as wise and good.

Julia Roberts is second-billed and the second lead as Mercedes Tainot, the community college professor who teaches Crowne's intro speech class. Tainot is getting fed up with her loutish, has-been writer husband Dean (Bryan Cranston, very good), as well as with teaching classes which have ceased to challenge or interest her much. There's a very raw, truthful quality to Roberts's performance. But just as important as her story foil is the scintillating Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Talia, a fellow student of Crowne's who takes him under her wing (and into her gang) as he starts to face his future. Her character exists in the realm of overdone free spirits in the movies, while also surpassing the usual as a sort of parody or bright answer to the audience's familiarity with such roles.

Indeed, the film is full of satisfying acting turns which could turn sour or fall into familiar traps, but don't. George Takei has a particularly memorable and welcome part as Larry and Talia's economics professor, Dr. Matsutani, but Wilmer Valderrama as Talia's boyfriend, Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as Larry's lucky neighbors, Rami Malek as Steve Dibiasi, another speech student, Pam Grier as Tainot's professor colleague and Holmes Osborne as the dean of students are standouts as characters as well as for the acting chops on relaxed yet confident display.

I freely admit I've seen a few more negative reviews, and I understand some of the reasons for them. Larry Crowne takes its time and meanders a bit, usually successfully, as far as I can tell (I've seen it twice by now), but others seem not to appreciate this quality as much as I did. Indeed, I felt it added suspense. It's also not a grand political statement, though it gets some good punches in, nor is it, certainly, the solution to our economic problems, though it has some personal insights in that regard as well, which are not at all obnoxious or too easy as I saw them. If you want a little heavier drama with a similar tale, do watch The Company Men, which is also very good, but which is not this movie. Then there's actor fatigue, which some critics seem to be experiencing with Hanks and Roberts, but which is really not very applicable to these fine performances--some of their best work--and of course comes with the territory. Is it too cute? I say no, but you may disagree.

If you watch Larry Crowne, and you should, I think you'll find it light, funny, comic, but with serious things to say which it says pretty well. It consciously chooses not to be maudlin or simple, despite a straight-ahead approach. I liked it very much, and found the details and action meaningful and smart. I guess I think it's okay to go in with different expectations, but pay attention to what you get, it's Larry Crowne, a sunny serio-comedy with a satisfying, lingering character mystery. And sure, it's been done before, but I'd be quite gratified to see another Best Actor nomination for Hanks here, which is all the more remarkable for his having written and directed the picture. Who can do all that so well? Few can do all that so well.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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