Dear Larry Crowne,
As a piece of throwback nostalgia to a time when films were simpler, when movie stars could play themselves, and when you knew at the outset that any obstacle was nothing more than a life-affirming moment in disguise, you are pitch perfect. As a modern movie, built for audiences savvy in the language of 1990s comedies, romances, and coming-of-middle-age stories, you are a let down. Still, since your intentions seem so clearly telegraphed in favor of the former kind of story, I can still count you as a mild, unimpressive success.
I’ve long been a follower of the line of reasoning that says a movie doesn’t have to strive for greatness or profundity so long as it still achieves its own mild goals with effort and class. It is unreasonable and wearying to assume every movie one sees will be as life-changing event. As such, I might be more forgiving of you than others are.
I know some people will balk at Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts playing vaguely flawed versions of themselves. I know others will likewise scoff at the idea of Hanks’ Larry Crowne being so willingly and briskly ‘adopted’ by the waifish pixie Talia. To me, however, these elements are just a logical product of a story that is so clearly sunk into the old way of doing things.
Cynicism in your story is kept to a minimum, which is surprising given the many real-world issues you address. Larry Crowne works at a store not dissimilar from Target until the day he is fired due to “reshaping.” He is told by a superior that his lack of a college degree will forever hold him back from a meaningful career path. Facing the loss of his house to foreclosure, Larry follows the advice of his quirky-yet-wise neighbors and enrolls in community college. There he meets the uber hipster Talia, who immediately takes him on as a project, and Roberts’ surly, eternally inebriated professor, Mercedes Tainot.
From the outset we can see the gears kicking into motion. The economics class, the eternal yard sale, the references to being a cook in the Navy; these things all form themselves like the gears on a clock, their teeth catching almost immediately. The mechanism is set in place, and a sort of narrative inevitability becomes apparent. No one will earn anything during the course of your story. A better film might envoke the notion of “fate,” whereas you just go for “because.”
Luckily, Hanks and Roberts are the kind of stars who bring all of their goodwill as actors to a performance, and their work here is minimal and yet eerily effective. Almost immediately we know what kind of man Larry is, and this helps up to reconcile Talia’s quick interest. Likewise, we know that beneath her terrible marriage to an utter boor – never explained or given historical context, oddly – and her Hollywood-style alcoholism, Mercedes is a kind, gentle woman.
Likewise, you allow your secondary characters to be broadly drawn cliches that somehow breath on their own through the sheer charm and wit of the actors who portray them. Talia is the most egregious example of a borrowed commodity, and yet she’s played with such straightforward, uncomplicated joy that I really didn’t care. I was just happy she didn’t have some deeply buried flaw that needed to be fixed following a lackluster fight.
Without spoiling the fun of the cameo, though, let me say that your greatest boon is in your economics professor. He walked away with every scene he was in.
Yes, Larry Crowne, you are a walking talking pile of known properties. You wear your heart on your sleeve and make no attempts to try anything new or interesting. But as I said, I am willing to forgive this all because as a romantic comedy you both made me laugh in a steady and heartfelt way, and made me root for your central couple. Why? Because they smile, because they do sweet, goofy things, and because everyone knows that characters played by Roberts and Hanks belong together.
Revolution is all well and good, and no one should ever shy from meaningful cinema of ideas. But every now and then we all need a respite, and we could all do a damn sight worse than to seek out your well known company.
For what its worth,
Brian J. Roan