Tom Hanks as Larry Crowne
Julia Roberts as Mercedes Tainot
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Talia
Cedric the Entertainer as Lamar
Taraji P. Henson as B’Ella
George Takei as Dr. Matsutani
Bryan Cranston as Dean Tainot
Rami Malek as Steve Dibiasi
Maria Canals-Barrera as Lala Pinedo
Malcolm Barrett as Dave Mack
Grace Gummer as Natalie Calimeris
Wilmer Valderrama as Dell Gordo
Pam Grier as Frances
It’s possible there is no subject too hurtful and close to heart that it can’t become fodder for light-hearted entertainment, and that’s a good thing. Assuming it’s good, light-hearted entertainment. That’s usually where the stumbling blocks show up, but co-writer/director/star is going to give it shot.
That said, “Larry Crowne” is not exactly plumbing the darkest depths of human experience for its backdrop, it’s merely using the modern realities of post-recession America as grist for its romantic comedy mill. Which just goes to show that it’s stopped being the kind of crisis which stops us in our tracks and become just another facet of human life for us to grapple with and find something encouraging in. That is also a good thing.
For the audience, anyway. Not so much for the titular Larry Crowne (Hanks), who learns in the opening minutes of the film that he has been picked for downsizing due to his lack of education. A retired Navy serviceman, Larry went from high school to the military to a career as a potential mid-level manager at a big box store, the way a lot of people have. Unfortunately for him, that sort of thing just won’t fly anymore and he quickly finds himself sitting in his front yard trying to figure out how he’s reached middle-age with nothing; no wife, no kids, no job.
That is actually far more depressing than anything in “Larry Crowne” actually is, which is both a blessing and a disappointment. For a film which is to a certain extent about unhappy people saving themselves it doesn’t ever let anything but the mildest rain cloud through, and if there is no real depth of suffering there’s not going to be as much sweetness in victory either.
Rather than give into depression Larry take’s his neighbor’s (Cedric the Entertainer) advice and enrolls in the local community college, and into the classroom of cynical English professor Mercedes (Julia Roberts) who’s own marriage is falling apart around her.
In someone else’s hands this would all be hopelessly depressing melodrama. In Hanks’ (and co-writer Nia Vardalos’), it’s light entertainment with a heart of gold but absolutely no ambition.
Independent filmmakers churn out a lot of these types of things every year: mild character-oriented stories with light-rock guitar soundtracks (this one courtesy of James Newton Howard), quirky characters and dialogue that are not quite good enough to carry a film which boils down to two people talking in a room for 90 minutes. As soon as Larry runs into a bubbly free-spirit (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who starts to make over his life with the aide of her scooter gang, you know “Larry Crowne” is one of those. Just one which happens to be quite a bit more expensive and professionally put together and features two of the biggest movie stars in the world.
The biggest problem with these kinds of films is that no matter how quirky they are, they tend to be as unoriginal and unmotivated as the hackiest big-budget spectacle. Because Mercedes is an English teacher, she tends to speak in quotes from literature; her class is made up classic college stereotypes like the sci-fi nerd and the stoner slacker; her husband is a worthless layabout who doesn’t appreciate her. The biggest success of these kinds of films is that they are quite sweet, though, and “Larry Crowne” is that, just not much else.
As much as you might want to like it, the lack of gumption makes it difficult to go all the way. Just as Larry just sits back and lets Talia make decisions for him rather than taking a real hand in changing his life, the film version is content to sit on its movie star laurels quite a bit. It doesn’t really have any desire to go anywhere.
There’s no rule that says it has to, but it means you’re not going to end up with much at the end of the day and that pretty much sums up “Larry Crowne.” Not much of anything. It’s good natured about the whole thing and truthfully hard to stay mad at for very long. But part of that is just because you’ll have forgotten about it as soon as it’s over.