REVIEW: Larry Crowne Gives Middle-Aged People — and Actors — a Bad Name
I note with a shiver that, as a person over 40 who has frequently expressed a desire to see fewer mainstream movies based on comic books and more roles for actors over, oh, age 25, I'm the target audience for Larry Crowne.
Please, shoot me now.
Actually, Larry Crowne does seem to be based on a comic book, or at least a '70s romance-comic premise. Tom Hanks -- who also directed and co-wrote the movie -- stars as the title character, the loyal, hardworking employee of a Tarmart/Walget-style big-box store who loses his job when the higher-ups inform him that, thanks to his lack of a college degree, there's nowhere in the company they can possibly put him. He enrolls in the local community college -- a character later refers to it disdainfully as Vassar of the Valley, though I wouldn't degrade the Valley quite that much -- which changes his life, not least because it's there he encounters a leggy teacher with a crazy-wide smile who happens to look a lot like Julia Roberts.
Because, of course, it is Julia Roberts, and her character's name is Mercedes Tainot, or, to her students, Ms. Tay-no. "Not Tie-knot," she informs them authoritatively on the first day of the public-speaking class she teaches, though the correct pronunciation of her name is pretty much all she seems to care about. Ms. Tie-knot is in a rut. She doesn't care about her classes, her students, or pretty much anything, and she's married to a loser who spends his days at home looking at porn on what the movie might refer to as the Cyberwebs. (This is a picture in which a character who looks to be in her 30s at the oldest, played by Taraji P. Henson, refers to "the eBay" as if she were an early-20th-century octogenarian encountering a horseless carriage for the first time.)
But Larry's college experience turns him around: Tutored by the class cutie (played insufferably by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), he gets a new haircut, learns first that he shouldn't be tucking his striped polo shirts into his Dockers and then that he shouldn't be wearing striped polo shirts to begin with, and becomes part of a scooter gang. And somehow, Ms. Tie-knot is charmed. Your guess is as good as mine.
Hanks isn't a terrible director: His 1996 That Thing You Do was one of the most enjoyable pop movies of the '90s, a simply constructed rags-to-riches-to-rags story set in the days of early '60s rock and roll. But Larry Crowne is embarrassingly self-congratulatory, even as it professes humility. Hanks probably shouldn't be directing himself, at least in a starring role. Or maybe he shouldn't be casting himself in lovable regular-guy roles like this one. In the early scenes of Larry Crowne, Hanks' Larry is so assertively regular he almost comes off as a special-needs child -- grinning into his coffee-cup in the big-box-store break room, he has all the sexual allure of Forrest Gump. Hanks gets better, and mildly sexier, as the movie trundles on -- for one thing, Larry realizes he has a knack for economics, becoming the star pupil of a straight-arrow, old-school economics instructor played, delightfully, by George Takei. But this isn't just a guy stuck in the rut of middle age; it's a guy who needs to learn that simplifying his life (trading his gas-guzzler for a scooter, for instance) is the truest path to happiness. Economy is sexy, yeah. But sanctimony isn't.
Hanks can no longer get away with playing cute, and it's puzzling that he should even try. His last enjoyable performance wasn't all that long ago, as the outsize Texas congressman in Mike Nichols' 2007 Charlie Wilson's War. (He played against Roberts in that film as well.) Maybe one of the problems with Larry Crowne is that the script was co-written by Nia Vardalos. Hanks was one of the producers of Vardalos' surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding (directed by Joel Zwick), though, to his credit, he had nothing to do with her big fat romantic stinker I Hate Valentine's Day, which she wrote, directed and made call-the-cops crazy-eyes in. When I learned, from the opening credits of Larry Crowne, that the script had been co-written by Vardalos, I suddenly remembered that I had a root canal scheduled for exactly that very moment. If only.
At the very least, though, I got to look at Roberts. She's trying way too hard in Larry Crowne -- her spikiness has been whittled down until it's nothing more than schtick, and there's just no way a character as take-no-prisoners sharp as Ms. Tie-knot is would fall so easily for a twinkling shambler like Larry. But Roberts still has that unidentifiable something, beginning with that great big mouth full of teeth. Who, in the movies today, has choppers like those? I love that smile, but I want to see it in a much livelier, cannier movie than Larry Crowne (or, for that matter, than the almost-not-terrible Eat Pray Love). If these are the best roles we can come up with for middle-aged actors, no wonder there are so few movies geared toward that elusive -- and, by Hollywood box-office standards, practically nonexistent -- middle-aged audience. Let's just pass the Dentu-Creme and be done with it.