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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Larry Crowne

Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts find romance at community college

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Every summer Hollywood releases at least one major motion picture for grown-ups. This year's contender, Larry Crowne, sports all-star casting with the always agreeable Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Directed and co-written by Hanks, the predictable plot of Larry Crowne benefits from its resonance with millions of Americans who have been or know people displaced by the Great Recession. With little effort, it turns a hard-luck story into romantic comedy.

The movie opens as Larry bounds into the parking lot of the UMart where he works, wearing his red polo shirt proudly and picking litter off the pavement. Larry loves his job, arranging every item on the shelves just so. When his name is called over the awful, squawking PA system, he expects to be named Employee of the Month. Instead, he's greeted by corporate knuckleheads delivering double-talk about opportunities and restructuring. In the plain English of nowadays, he's downsized.

Unfortunately, Hanks plays Larry as a bit of a dummy as he goes to work, a blank smile duct-taped across his doughy face. He calls on more of his resources as an everyman actor during the job-hunt sequence, where no one has anything to offer, everyone says times are tough and his anxious look as the meter runs past $70 is a familiar sight at gas stations nationwide. Larry decides to buy a motor scooter from his neighbor, played by Cedric the Entertainer with a comic savvy that outshines everyone else in Larry Crowne, and rides off to the community college where education is said to change lives.

Mercedes (Julia Roberts) enters the film, Pretty Woman-like, high heels first, slipping into her shoes as she exits her car and striding to her campus teaching job in a low-cut dress, leaving an oil slick of bitterness in her wake. Mercedes, who dreamed of being a great literature professor, is teaching ignoramuses who think the Renaissance is a summer fair and text-speak represents proper English spelling. She's been assigned an intro speech class, which the wacky college dean recommends to Larry in the hallway. "The class will change your life—and you'll like the teacher," he adds with a manly wink that would get him disciplined in any 21st-century American school. Maybe parts of the script have been sitting in a drawer for decades?

The plucky Larry and despondent Mercedes are both unhappy people. Along with his job loss, Larry discovers his house is worth less than his mortgage, and there is an ex-wife (did I once hear him say kids?) who never appears. Aside from her unsatisfying academic career, Mercedes is confronted by a distinctly contemporary problem, the stay-at-home doofus husband. He has a website, "a bridgehead in the new media" as he pompously pronounces, but actually spends most of his hours with Internet porn. He is a loser and she has no illusions. As always, Roberts acts brilliantly with her eyes and lips, curdled with disdain at her life, yet somehow brightened by thoughts of Larry.

The mechanics of the inevitable convergence of Larry and Mercedes are unconvincing, and there is the odd side-plot of Larry's adoption by fellow student Talia and her "gang" of youthful, multicultural scooter enthusiasts who teach him to be cool and provide an otherwise static movie with some motion. The screenplay, which Hanks worked on with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), isn't as funny as it should be, but it is funny enough, registering more laughs per hour than most Hollywood comedies of 2011. Although Hanks probably borrowed the idea from the Disney Channel, text messages between him and Talia are prominently displayed on screen in candy-colored oblong boxes. It might be their first appearance on film, but it probably won't be their last.

Can education change lives? Larry Crowne sends mixed signals. Larry's economics class gives him the tools to tackle his unctuous mortgage officer at the bank, yet Talia gladly drops out of college to open a resale shop and Larry pays the rent as a short-order cook. The real message of Larry Crowne is familiar from a hundred years of Hollywood and 200 years of romance novels: Finding one's soul mate is the ultimate life changer.
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