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!

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Others might prefer Julia Roberts’ big toothy grin or Kerry Washington’s perfectly kissable pout. For myself, I like actresses whose mouths do additional work for them beyond simply looking pretty — mouths that gives women character. We live in a world in which actresses keep getting told to medically alter their most distinctive features to bring them into line with mainstream tastes; rather, I want to celebrate real women’s faces.

Take Sophia Loren. No matter whether viewers got distracted by those curves and those cheekbones, her mouth always offered a kind of gravitas to her parts onscreen. No one could be mistaken into thinking she was eye candy alone. She signaled a whole range of emotions with variations of the set of her mouth as seen here — disapproval, distance, determination, controlled rage. That mouth could break your heart and win your respect. When she kicked you out, that mouth might well be the thing you remembered most. For a 76-year-old goddess, as she is now, her mouth gives her a grandeur that I, for one, would kill for.

But there’s also Carey Mulligan‘s little smirk. She’s one of the few ingénue actresses of the moment whose distinctive mouth always tells me she’s far more imaginative, interesting, and pragmatic than her blonde loveliness and dimples might otherwise lead us to expect. Considering how often she’s played straightforward girly-girls (think Bleak House and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) her mouth always undercut any impulse to underestimate her. If you scan through Google images of her, she’s invariably photographed with her mouth clamped shut tight, which gives her a perpetually ironic or grimacing look. It just goes to show you: even if you’re everyone’s favorite girl actor right now, their love might be won by the intelligence that obviously backs up your Twiggy-like cuteness.

And oh for the long, long jaw and mouth of Khandi Alexander. I’ve loved her ever since her early NewsRadio days — a love so pure that I am (still) willing to forgive her turn on the otherwise unwatchable CSI: Miami as the medical

examiner Dr. Alexx (!) Woods. If there remained any doubt about my forgiveness, it’s been resolved now that she’s in HBO’s Treme as the owner of her family’s bar. Alexander’s face has an elegance that bespeaks her early career as a dancer and choreographer — for stars as prominent as Whitney Houston — but it’s that mouth I celebrate every single time I see her. She can sneer, purse her lips, or explain detailed medical terms with equal aplomb; and when she smiles, she flashes the most astounding mouthful of beautiful teeth.

On the topic of teeth, however, I’m really getting sick of the super-perfect caps that actors use to whitewash their delightfully irregular fangs. I was crushed when Michelle Rodriguez changed her sexy, slightly crooked teeth in for a generic set out of a magazine; she might as well be anyone. Who would Steve Buscemi or David Bowie be without those teeth of theirs? In the absence of many crooked-teeth heroines to choose from in the acting world, I’m going to celebrate Kirsten Dunst, whose lateral incisors pop out a bit and remind us she’s a real woman. Even just on their own, Dunst’s teeth give her entire face a youthful realness that reminds me of how many of us finally got liberated from our junior high-school braces only to discover our teeth had other ideas. Plus, in Dunst’s case her teeth always remind me of her early star-making role in Interview With the Vampire (1994), made when she was only 12.

Dunst’s comparatively thin lips also reminds me to sing a short song to the early Barbara Hershey. I was too young to notice her until the wonderful Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986 — remember when his films all seemed to be wonderful?) in which the excellently creepy Michael Caine lusts for her. One of the best things about that film was its capacity for making us see Hershey’s superlative beauty and her natural ease through Caine’s eyes. Hershey always seemed a bit unaware of how truly beautiful she was — except her great, thin-lipped mouth and slightly jutting chin always gave her a glamour that even a high school girl could wield as a weapon. For that reason it was crushing to hear in the early 90s that she had undergone lip augmentation for the film Beaches. She later had the procedure reversed (or perhaps the lips deflated on their own?); I’m still working on reversing my frustration with her as a poster child for the Angelina Jolie craze for absurdly poofy lips.

And finally there’s the mixed-race Devon Aoki, who channels a little Christina Ricci with her unusually small jaw and petulant pout contrasted with her prominent cheekbones and striking eyes. In Sin City she played the ruthless killer Miho. The story never met a female stereotype it didn’t like — it casts Miho as mute (yeah, I know) who was sure to slice you in half with her swords if you crossed her, especially if you made the mistake of calling her a “Jap slut” or “Jap slag.” Misogynistic stereotypes aside — and I think you know how much it takes for me to set them aside — I got stuck on Aoki’s unusual mouth. I’ve got a small jaw myself, so I know that Aoki’s orthodonist must have become wealthy finding ways to make all her teeth fit in as they should; most of all, I’m delighted to see a broader range of great mouths on female actors.

I’m racing back to finish grading now, but do let me know if I’ve missed anyone.