“Larry Crowne” (2011): do we want to believe?

7 July 2011

Following our earlier chats this spring about White Material and Miral, the critic/blogger JustMeMike and I decided to choose more mainstream material this time: the big-release Larry Crowne, the film directed and produced by Tom Hanks and co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). As with so many romantic comedies, we approached this one wondering whether we’d be charmed and delighted, or feel abused by its commercialism. Read on to find our unexpected answers!

JustMeMike: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts or Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks — might this be the next big pairing or as some have decided: America’s newest screen sweethearts? I mean Hanks and Meg Ryan lit up the box-offices with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. When Roberts was paired with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman and The Runaway Bride — the results were pretty much $Ka-ching! What do you think?

Didion:  Having only seen the preview at this point, I want to know: isn’t Hanks a bit long in the tooth to be playing the cutie-pie sweetheart? Unlike the perennially handsome Gere or George Clooney, he’s going to have to get past his midlife paunchiness to appeal to us. I’m also not sure yet that Julia Roberts can convincingly play a beaten-down, cynical professor. (I know cynical professors, ma’am, and you’re no cynical professor.) My read on the trailer is that this is a role reversal from You’ve Got Mail: Hanks has been slotted into the perky Meg Ryan role, and Roberts is the cynical Hanks role.

Larry early in the film

JustMeMike: How old is Hanks anyway? Can we agree to call him not-yet doddering, but surely way past being able to play the male ingénue? I’ll go along with your knowledge of professors and academia if you’ll accept that I know something about having a paunch – so let’s set the movie up right now: (SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT)

In case some of you haven’t seen the much-circulated trailer, Larry Crowne opens with Larry getting fired from his job at a big-box store. Even though he had a long career as a Navy cook, they explain, he lacks a college education. Turned away from other jobs and feeling the pressure of an inflated mortgage, he signs up for a few classes at the local community college, including an econ class (with professor George Takei) and a public speaking class with professor Mercedes/Mercy Tainot (Julia Roberts). Along the way he befriends a beautiful free spirit and fellow scooter-rider, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who updates his style, invites him out with her pack of scooter riders, and otherwise initiates him into a more youthful culture. Meanwhile, Mercy’s unhappy marriage is crashing and she’s going through the motions at her job, when one night Larry offers to give her a lift home, a ride on the scooter that leads to a quick, drunken make-out session at her door. The next day she insists they both forget about it.

Meanwhile, Larry’s economics class helps him come to grips with his bad-debt mortgage. He sadly but resolutely jettisons his beloved house, reluctantly procures a job as a fry cook, and excels in his courses. Along the way, Mercy takes increasing notice of him. By the end, convinced of his merit, she acknowledges to herself that she’s attracted to him — and she begins to make opportunities for them to be together.

Didion: WHOA. I just saw the movie and have tons to say about it. First, on whether Hanks is too old: they must have faced this objection early on, because this is a makeover movie! By the halfway mark he’s jettisoned his dreary middle-aged gear in favor of the grooviest clothes, has a chain attached to his wallet (!), and, naturally, has a 20-year-old best friend/style diva who apparently dresses him for free. I was so surprised to find this to be a film in which the guy undergoes a makeover — it’s such a staple of the rom-com, but it’s always reserved for women.

Here’s a question for you: what did you think about the Julia Roberts character? I’m still trying to figure out why she didn’t quite work for me.

This rings true: the agonies of teaching + hangover

JustMeMike: Okay, leaving the Larry Crowne makeover on the sidelines for the moment — what struck me was the reversal of the shapes in this film. When I think of Julia Roberts, I think beautiful, sexy, and she’s got that wow factor. Tom Hanks has that sturdy, upright, up-standing, Jimmy Stewart everyman image. In Larry Crowne — Hanks got softer, rounder, and with his receding hairline, he just looked older than his true age 53 [Didion]: I just looked this up and he’ll be 55 in a couple of days]. But Roberts? She looked sharper, with more edges instead of curves, her chin more pointed, and her smile looked narrower.  She lost her glow and her warmth. But maybe that was what was intended — as a dissatisfied woman, unhappy in her marriage, and not thrilled with an 8:00 AM class.

Didion: Yeah, I agree. But her unhappiness also seems to have turned her into a pretty serious alcoholic, which could be a really interesting and depth-making character issue, except that she’s not really much of the focus in the film. Maybe I just found her … um, a little cold? A little unfocused?

JustMeMike: She arrived in class after power breakfast of an alcoholic shake — so she needed the  sunglasses. With those on — cold is a good description. Maybe bleary-eyed as well — but I’ve no proof…

Mercy Tainot commencing her frozen-margarita evening

Didion: There’s another issue re: believability: in the world of us professors, if a class gets canceled, your pay gets docked — seriously docked. As in, if you’re only teaching 2 instead of 3 courses a semester, your pay goes down by a third. (Or they make you teach an extra class the following term.) So her eagerness to have classes canceled really doesn’t ring true.

JustMeMike: As for college reality — I thought it strange that the Dean of Student Services sat in the class twice. Probably had a thing for Tainot.

Didion: Argh. No way. By the end I was cranky enough to think Larry’s final speech was kind of lame (as a speech) too — but it was sweet, and that’s the important thing. One more thing I didn’t believe: that Larry would be fired from the big-box store for not having gone to college … but I suppose his bosses could have been lying about it to get rid of a more expensive worker.

Things I did believe: that Larry was a sweetheart, that he cleaned up nicely, and that he learned some pretty useful information in that econ class with George Takei. The Julia Roberts part of the film just seemed less sensitive and developed — and I had a hard time buying the chemistry between them. Which is too bad, because I would’ve thought with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as a co-writer, we might have had a more believable romance.

JustMeMike: The issue you keep going back to is the believability/reality factor. I guess you’re saying that Larry Crowne asks you to suspend disbelief so often, that you are bothered by it. I am in agreement with everything you mentioned that’s false:

a) Cancellation of classes
b) The 20 something scooter pal
c) Dean sitting in twice
d) Big box store firing him for no college degree
e) Chemistry between the leads

Yeah, all of the above are puzzlers. But I don’t think you go into a film that is being sold as a rom/com expecting reality. In other words, while all of the above are true — I wasn’t bothered by them as much as you were.

Didion: One more thing: a cousin of mine married a Navy cook who served for 20 years, and I believe his Navy pension has left him in a pretty sweet financial position. But maybe not enough to manage a massive mortgage debt like Larry’s.

JustMeMike: Now there’s something that I can rail about. Crowne begins with the firing of everyone’s candidate for permanent employee of the month. Then we learn about the huge nut he can’t support any longer – his mortgage and alimony payments. So Hanks and Vardalos begin with the set up of Larry Crowne being let go in the midst of the terrible economy. That’s a difficult topic. I saw that in The Company Men.

I think that setting the guy up on the shoals of life in order to change him isn’t going to garner them any kudos. Plus the terrible economy shouldn’t be a topic to either gloss over or take lightly. But I’m glad that was just the front end rather than the main course.

You know, he didn’t go from the U-Mart to the fry cook job. He did make the rounds. He took the cooking job out of desperation.

Didion: So maybe that’s going to be the essential question between us: is all the unbelievable stuff going to be too much to bear, or are there other reasons to enjoy Larry Crowne?

All this discussion about Larry and the economy makes me think that Larry Crowne is a romance on several levels: Larry learns to face his terrible personal finances; Larry undergoes a makeover, yet he returns to working as a fry cook, the one thing he never wanted to do again after being a cook in the Navy; and Larry finds (possible) love.

On the issue of his taking the fry cook job: honestly, I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the fact that Larry didn’t want to do that anymore, or whether circling back to that work has its own satisfactions (he is, after all, quite good at it). What do you think: are we supposed to feel as if Larry’s giving something up when he takes that job?

JustMeMike: Necessity is the all-powerful ingredient in determining if you will take a job you probably promised yourself you’d never do again. I’ve been there. Drove a taxi in NYC once upon a time.

Didion, interjecting rudely: Driving a taxi! That story should be the start of a screenplay, perhaps entitled A Different Taxi Driver!

JustMeMike, continuing politely as if he had not been interrupted: Yes I do think there’s much to like about the film. First Larry Crowne is a nice guy. With or without the paunch, or the receding hairline, or the softness and roundness — that’s why Talia likes him, his squareness, and near fuddy-duddy style is to her — very cuddly. Ultimately, that’s why Ms. Tainot eventually changes sides from indifferent to liking — because he is likable, and he not only tried to improve himself but he accomplished it.

Second, and I’m just getting started — some of the writing of performances were great — George Takei’s Professor Dr. Matsutani was wonderful …

Didion: And I have to say, speaking as a cynical professor-type myself, that I love having older students in my classes, so long as they’re like Larry — eager to learn and be surprised. (Sadly, I’ve also had their depressing counterparts: the ones determined to show that they know everything already.) So I agree, absolutely, that Larry’s open-mindedness makes him appealing. And George Takei! He’s so weird, and I’m with him on the cell phones in class policy.

Character is key — so in that regard, you’re right — I fell for Larry the way I always fall for those characters who undergo makeovers in movies.

But on the question of believability issues, we should talk about the way the film portrays a post-racial fantasy-land. I find this completely fascinating. I grant you that someone like Talia might well take to Larry. But surely it’s worth discussing that people of color in this film are all slotted in as the uncomplicated yet colorful best friends who help out and offer up no racial tension whatsoever.

JustMeMike: On this we agree. This is a major flaw of the movie. This is where the teeter-totter goes way overboard — or should I say over-tilts. Hanks is trying his best to be nice. Offend no one. Leave no group out. His rainbow coalition of scooter friends is a just as silly as the multiracial makeup of the class. Not only did they offer no racial tension, they offered no tension period. Where’s the class bully when you need him? Maybe that role was assigned to Ms. Tainot.

Malcolm Barrett not given enough time to demonstrate dance moves

Said another way — what’s wrong with a post-racial fantasy land. After all this is a movie, and nothing more. But then again I’ve not attended a community college where academic admission is far less of a challenge.

Didion: Not a problem or even a flaw — but so striking as to be rich for analysis! On the one hand, this is the most racially diverse film I’ve seen in a long time; we could use more post-racial fantasies if we want to make it more realized. As far as I’m concerned, Pam Grier, George Takei, and Malcolm Barrett (who was fabulous in Better Off Ted) can show up in any film at all and I’ll be happy.

But none of them is fleshed out at all…not even the beautiful Talia. They all sit comfortably back, like colorful, unproblematic background furniture, helping to give Larry a rich environment in which to transform. Blecch. The film is all Larry’s character and not enough story with other figures.

Pam Grier as Mercy’s best friend

You know what I kept thinking? That the writers might have thought the lack of racial tension would make a film about getting fired during a bad economy more watchable for viewers who’ve actually been affected by the downturn. I.e., it’s a movie that resolves all other issues to help soothe people’s views of the economy.

JustMeMike: Yup — from a logical standpoint that makes sense — if you start with the bad economy based downsizing, add in some angry scooter folks also in the same or similar situation, and then some discordant classmates — then you will have a film that makes everyone angry and is something no one wants or expects in a rom/com.

As for Pam Grier — I was actually surprised when she re-appeared in Act Two.

Larry with his neighbor, Cedric The Entertainer

But back to the stress — the only guys that displayed some mostly mild anger were:

1) The neighbor (Cedric The Entertainer) who thought his yard-sale monopoly was being infringed when Larry carted out his stuff
2) Talia’s boyfriend — Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama)  who thought his exclusivity with Talia was being infringed.
3) Tainot’s husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) who was just overdrawn ridiculous from the get-go. Any guy addicted to internet boobs would be looking at naked breasts not clothed ones.

But that brings us back to Hanks’ universal concept for the film of making nothing truly objectionable, or to make a film with as few hard edges as possible. That I understand even if I don’t like it or appreciated it.

In my view — the most ridiculous or objectionable part of the film was seeing Hanks’ skivvy-clad bottom in the changing of clothing scene. I’m wondering what they were going for with that?

Didion: I’m not sure I have any satisfying concluding words to offer on the subject of race in this film — it’s noticeable but it ultimately doesn’t especially affect the central story about Larry. And you know what I thought about during the aforementioned tighty-whitey scene? “I wonder if Talia will upgrade the skivvy situation?”

From a professor’s point of view, I thought the movie could have made more out of the tension about a professor dating a student. It’s verboten for us — I can’t tell you how many times we get warned about it. It’s always, always associated with something dirty and untoward: the idea that a student might get better grades because of a relationship, and/or that a professor is taking advantage by offering better grades as rewards. Any time one person actually has power over the other person’s life on campus — re: grades, a dissertation, etc. — you’re not supposed to get involved. What they always say is that they don’t like to have faculty dating students — but if you must, wait till the person is no longer in your class, and/or have another prof take over supervision of the grad student so it doesn’t appear untoward.

And I agree that the power dynamics of the situation can’t help but affect the relationship, even if there’s a genuine attraction/love between the people — how could Mercedes know that Larry didn’t just have a hot-for-teacher kind of tweak? (And who doesn’t have a hot-for-teacher kind of tweak?) How could Larry know that Mercy didn’t enjoy being the smart and powerful controller of the relationship? If I’d been in her shoes, I would have been more worried about losing my job than Larry’s locker-room talk. But that doesn’t sound much like rom-com material either, does it?

You know what I wish I’d looked at a little more closely? The number of times crowns appear in the film as motifs. The one I really noticed was when Larry picks Mercy up at the bus stop: there’s a big crown on the billboard behind her. Actually, aside from the curiosity factor, I’m not sure I’ve got much to say about this motif except that it subtly makes me like Larry a little bit more each time.

Sorry, Julia, for this hideous screen cap — it’s the only one I could find with the crown on the billboard.

JustMeMike: Whoosh! There’s the sound of the crown motif sailing by me. I totally missed that. Nice one for you to have noticed. I didn’t think that Larry in his basic undershorts was there for Talia to fix. I think it’s there so Wilderrama could toss off another burned and steamed look. Speaking of him — for about ⅓ of the film I thought I was watching Esai Morales — only I couldn’t reconcile the age gap.

As you said, having a bit more of issues/problems vis-a-vis teacher/student dating would have been a whole other movie. Not this one.

Okay what else did you hate or like? I kinda liked the scooter pack. In all my years I’ve never seen one. I kind of liked the music too. Not too hard and not too soft.

Didion: I did like the scooter pack — but can’t remember the music. I liked the scenes of that San Gabriel Valley (I think) part of LA where it’s shot — I kept wondering, when they were driving around, if it was Altadena or Pasadena or Silver Lake or Eagle Rock, [JustMeMike: per IMDB the film locations listed Altadena so you were right with your first guess] and whether they’d head out for chicken & waffles. I love movies that really give me a sense of where they’re filmed. (Of course, I also know people who spend all their time at those movies getting angry that they got the locations wrong. “You don’t drive on that level of the Bay Bridge to get to Oakland!” etc.)

JustMeMike: Okay got it. I too am particularly fond of watching films in places I’ve been. You know what I think – that you really didn’t hate it as much as you thought and I didn’t like it as much as I thought. It wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t great. The bad husband got his come-up-ence, the people who were supposed to be together got together, and the sun will come up tomorrow.

Didion: Oh, I can muster much more rage than that! I could say, “HEADLINE: if having a charming central character is enough for you, then Larry Crowne will work; but beyond that the narrative is tepid.” Or, in my cranky feminist guise (and who doesn’t love hearing cranky feminists go on rants?) I could say, “So what? another white dude has thoughts and feelings.”

But yeah, in the end you’re probably right — it’s a perfectly middle-of-the-road rom-com that won’t have you vomiting uncontrollably by the end. (Advertisers: please put that on a poster!)

I could also list a whole pile of better rom-coms that you should see instead. From the above-average (like The Wedding Singer, or Only You) to the truly excellent Amélie or When Harry Met Sally.

JustMeMike: Yeah, “I’ll have what she’s having.” A memorable line if there ever was one. Of course on this we agree, that Larry Crowne is not memorable in any way, shape or form. Not even the casting of these two will elevate this film to that kind of level.

That Scene from When Harry Met Sally

As for vomit-inducing films — that’s got to be a figure of speech — otherwise you’d have been barred from numerous theaters.

I wonder if Hanks aimed for middle of the road intentionally, or thought it was better than that and he failed. I also read that he shot for the adults and seniors opening against Transformers 3 and that the target audience isn’t enamored either….

Didion: One final thought. You asked at the beginning whether Hanks & Roberts might be the next big-money pairing — and I was reminded by a friend tonight that they had appeared together once before in Charlie Wilson’s War — in what were arguably much more interesting and even sexually-charged roles. I kind of loved her as that terrifying right-wing Texas power-broker. In short, I like them better together when they’re fighting each other tooth & nail, and much less when Hanks is an unobjectionable nice guy!

Final words? Perhaps, please go see Midnight in Paris again instead!

19 Responses to ““Larry Crowne” (2011): do we want to believe?”

  1. CMrok93 Says:

    I liked this one because it had its heart in the right place, and the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts kept me enjoyed. However, I won’t lie when I say that this is heavily flawed, but not unwatchable by any means. Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

  2. Didion Says:

    Dan, you could have teamed up successfully with JustMeMike to fight against my cynicism! Go here to read all of Dan’s review: http://dtmmr.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/larry-crowne-2011/

  3. Servetus Says:

    I appreciated this review since it discusses something I am likely to be able to see 🙂

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, we figured that we can only go art-house so often before people start to refuse to read our damn blogs. (And reading about the ticket sales for this big-release film, I’m starting to think the film was doubtless grateful for our support…..)

  4. JustMeMike Says:

    Yeah Servetus you should see it – and as Didion says – being able to see it was a big reason we chose to discuss it. When I saw Miral – there was only one other person in the theater.

    Didion – you’re not really the cynic – the film wasn’t all it should have been – but isn’t more fun to have opposing perspectives rather than:

    Didion: I loved it …
    JustMeMike: I loved it …

    where would we go from there?


    • Didion Says:

      True. I’m starting to have strong opinions about the value of conversations in the case of strong disagreements and/or complex films (like White Material).

      And now I want to know what other people think about some of the stuff we discussed from Larry Crowne — like the way it deals with unemployment in this terrible economy. How in the world do those podcasters do it, when they discuss things on the fly?

  5. Hattie Says:

    Thanks so much for this fine discussion and analysis. I would ordinarily pass up such a movie, but now I really want to go see it.

  6. Z Says:

    I also want to see it now, too. I didn’t like Midnight in Paris, but this seems quirkier / weirder.

    What I can see in Maringouin: Bad Teacher. Have you seen it and if so, what did you think?

    • Didion Says:

      Weird: yes. A inaccurate portrait of college life: yes. But somehow sweet-hearted nevertheless.

      I haven’t seen Bad Teacher, Profacero, and I’m hesitating because of a review I read somewhere. In general I stay far, far away from films about teachers (I have very bad memories of Mr Holland’s Opus, watched on a plane without the headphones, and I still got both weepy and furious). But bad teachers? That might be cathartic. Tell me, what did you think?

  7. Hattie Says:

    Well, I went out to the multiplex and saw the movie, and I am right in the demographic this
    is aimed at. So I liked it a lot. It is a Hollywood Liberal movie. It’s didactic. It’s advising people to change their lives, not put up with being put down. It inspires me to see people pull up their sox, take what opportunities come up, and make better lives for themselves. It’s full of advice: get out from under that mortgage, go to school and learn fun and interesting stuff, take whatever work you can get to pay the bills, find some cool people to hang with, etc. And never never
    work at a big box store.
    It would be possible to make a movie like that that was more realistic without Hollywood stars, but no one would go to see it.

    • Didion Says:

      I know, I know…but somehow I just couldn’t buy it all in the end. I think if Julia Roberts’ character had been a teensy bit more prominent and believable I would have gone for it.

      • Hattie Says:

        Movies are a fantasy medium. So I think of this as a fantasy with elements of realism.
        It’s a what if.

  8. tam Says:

    I thought you did a thorough job covering all the various aspects of the film. But in the end you were both disappointed, even though you wanted to like it.

    Fair summary?

    I think I’ll wait for the dvd.

    • Didion Says:

      Obviously, Mike liked it more than I did. And Hattie’s response makes me think that we both missed some of the ways this film helps to soothe economic anxieties. I really did get hung up on all the things that one can’t believe about it. Way back in college I took a fiction writing class in which the professor demanded that if you put in a detail — say, about a guy firing a gun — you actually have to know something about that gun and get the details right, otherwise readers will write you angry letters saying, “A Colt .45 doesn’t have a so-and-so kind of firing mechanism! Criminey!” But I also saw and loved the X-Men movie, so obviously I’m willing to set aside “reality” and “logic” when I’m determined to like a movie.

  9. Servetus Says:

    I think it’s interesting to ask in such detail, essentially, what would make such a project satisfactory? A lot of mainstream cinema isn’t worth the effort, but this was neat to read.

  10. Z Says:

    OK, I haven’t seen Bad Teacher yet but it and Harry Potter sold out at the multiplex where I saw Larry Crowne with 4 other people in the audience.

    I liked it for reasons perhaps similar to Hattie’s – and actually found it a lot less hokey in terms of unrealistic representation than Midnight in Paris.

    Anyway I wouldn’t have gone had it not been for this post, so merci!!! Now I’m behind on the movies you’ve moved up to. 😉

  11. […] last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger […]

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