Director: Tom Hanks
Runtime: 98 minutes
I really like that poster. The sky blue with the alternating thick/thin sans serif font and the jarringly bright yellow, drawing your eye to it and down towards the pair of movie stars at bottom right. Julia Roberts looks ecstatic and Tom Hanks suavely cool on his scooter—this could be a gem of a film with some sophisticated style.
Alas, though, it is not. After starting with the charming joke of a middle-aged man living and breathing his retail sales job, picking up the trash in the parking lot as he arrives before any of his co-workers, it slowly devolves into tedium. The titular Larry Crowne, Hanks is a bit of a goof, perhaps with a few screws loose, but definitely left of center on the maturity level. I guess working with kids half his age will cause that to happen, leaving his life as a 20-year Navy ‘culinary specialist’ veteran behind for the mostly thankless task of cleaning puke, stocking shelves, and steering his customers to the best product for their needs.
But the joke cannot sustain after an awkward firing session only briefly alluded to in the trailer. Claudia Stedelin is stone-faced serious, Dale Dye the spineless executive, and the duo of Rob Riggle and Bob Stephenson the comic relief. In what’s the first of many scenes that drag on much longer than necessary, helped by the flatness of almost every single joke, I began to shift in my seat uncomfortably, not because this non-collegiate man who excels at his job is fired, but because the dialogue is so strained. It’s followed by Hanks wallowing in self-pity, the stunned face drained of life that won him a couple Oscars ever-present, attempting to tug our heartstrings with a sob story of tough times, no money, and a last option of finally going to college. The poster lied—he is a dork and Roberts is soon shown to be anything but ecstatic with her life.
So Larry Crowne makes his way to school on the advice of next-door neighbor, Lamar (one of the few bright spots played endearingly by Cedric the Entertainer). An earlier Riggle quip about Crowne’s growth being retarded comes to mind as we watch Hanks’ out-of-place grin and complete fish-out-of-water sensibility take to the campus. He’s like a giant child without a clue, defenseless to the kind, overly intrusive Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) taking a shine to his kindred scooter spirit. She becomes his educator on being hip—yeah, the dress shirts with embroidered dragons on the sleeves and pocket chains only make him look more asinine—while the jaded Mercy Tainot (Roberts) and over-the-top Dr. M (George Takai) mold his mind in the ways of public speaking and economics respectively. It’s a neatly tied up package featuring all the things to get him through this rough patch and show the world how getting fired can actually be the best thing for you.
Larry Crowne just screams for attention with forced eccentricity—Rita Wilson with horrible blonde hair and Wilmer Valderrama turning a ‘People’s Eyebrow’ to an affable smile at will—head-shaking pronunciations—does Hanks really say ‘spec-tack-a-ler’—and amateurish attempts at artistically framed compositions like through the handle of a water jug or on the taillight of a car from the ground. I had high hopes having really enjoyed Hanks’ first foray behind the lens with That Thing You Do!, but all its nostalgic charm is missed here, replaced by a schmaltzy, unfunny mess of a script. I’d hate to place all the blame on co-writer Nia Vardalos, but my similar inability to see the laughs in My Big Fat Greek Wedding do cause me to think her comedic sensibilities took over. I genuinely laughed only as much as the fingers on one hand, my disbelief in how long a 99-minute film could feel overtaking any sense of humor I had at the start. I literally cringed at Bryan Cranston’s chauvinistic imbecile of a husband to Roberts, his lines impossible to perform well enough to care a lick about what he’s saying.
As a result, I began to find myself hating the leads for their utter stupidity. Larry lets himself be altered by the whims of a 20-year old, Mercy drinks away her sorrows as though that’s better than her husband forgetting his with porn, and Talia becomes the poster child of how successful one can become if they drop out of school. Seriously, the cavalier handling of choices that ruin 95% of the population somehow allowing their victims to come out smelling like roses is horrible. Even Lamar—a seemingly kind-hearted haggler who turned his home into a yard sale with wife B’Ella, (a completely wasted Taraji P. Henson)—only gets by because he won $500,000 on a game show. Maybe the project was meant to be a fantasy satire, a world turned on its head with tragedy begetting riches, I don’t know. Either way it comes off like a muddled mess of missed opportunities surrounding the adulterous, central romantic coupling.
Because despite all the stuff about school and bettering oneself, this is a romantic comedy at its core … I think. The leading lady is married after all. But the ‘will they or won’t they’ becoming a weird teacher/student tryst only adds more awkwardness and sentimentally clichéd fateful crossings of characters to open each others’ eyes to the wonderful world around them. It’s really too bad since the scenes inside Mrs. Tainot’s classroom do sort of work. Turn this flick into a broad comedy about an older man joining a freshman level communication course full of stereotypical kids and there’s a decently entertaining romp waiting to be let loose. Give me more of Rami Malek’s stoned cluelessness, Maria Canals-Barrera’s shy Latino, Grace Gummer’s west coast athletic delivery, and Malcolm Barrett’s ‘is he gay’ two-step or ‘just a nerd’ Starfleet Academy wardrobe. It’s with them that I had any sort of fun—a beacon of hope in an otherwise mind-numbingly boring piece of throwaway fluff.
Larry Crowne opened Friday, July 1st.
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