Several years ago, one of my dearest friends starred in a national CitiCard commercial in which a woman Feng shuis her house (the ancient Chinese system of aesthetics that teaches that greater spiritual energy can be derived from a proper orientation of your material belongings) but discovers that what she really needed to do was Feng shui her clueless husband. Larry Crowne is that commercial writ large, the story of a middle-aged man who, for reasons not entirely of his choosing, makes sweeping changes to his life. The film, directed, written and starring Tom Hanks, is, if one can compare the world of cinema to the world of your dining room table, neither dinner nor dessert, but rather the tasty and ultimately inconsequential appetizer you enjoy before moving on to the more substantive fare.
Larry Crowne (Hanks) is the sort of guy everyone likes. Affable and good-hearted, he is the perennial Employee of the Month at the department store where he’s worked since retiring from the Navy. But when he’s downsized, the newly divorced Larry suddenly faces a very bleak future. He decides to start over from the beginning and enrolls in college where he meets a colorful assortment of scooter-riding classmates, including Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who makes Larry her personal improvement project. Talia’s skills turn quite a few heads, including that of Mercedes (Julia Roberts), Larry’s speech professor who is no more enthused about life and teaching than she is about her good-for-nothing, layabout husband.
Larry Crowne is only the second feature Hanks has ever directed. While he helmed several episodes of the superb series Band of Brothers and From Earth to the Moon, his feature work tends to be of a far more…relaxed nature. His first film, That Thing You Do!, was enchanting and criminally underappreciated, but hardly noteworthy. Hanks seems to enjoy personal projects that are slight, unpretentious and insignificant—his latest included—the sort of projects you toss together for no other reason than because it will be fun. There is certainly a place for airy and jaunty filmmaking (though I don’t wish to see Hanks make a habit of it), and so long as you go into the theater aware of the film’s limitations, you ought to walk out no worse for wear.
While I enjoyed the film’s intergenerational and interracial dynamics, Hanks and Roberts’ easy chemistry, the buoyant Tom Petty score, and a bevy of delightful supporting characters (including Star Trek’s George Takai, That 70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama and, of course, Rita Wilson, Hank’s wife), the film’s individual bits work far better than the whole. Co-writer Nia Vardalos, who shot to fame in the Hanks-produced My Big Fat Greek Wedding, has revisited that film’s “back to school” theme, but with far more serious implications. For a middle-aged man without a college education, this is a horror movie.
Plainly, not everything works—a subplot involving Mercedes and her husband (Brian Cranston) is laughably bad, as, it must be said, is Larry’s hot-for-teacher attitude. On the verge of an alcoholic meltdown, Mercedes is far from emotionally alluring. Even the best of us are unattractive when we are at our lowest low. The fact that Julia Roberts spends much of the film unlikable (if manifestly adorable) is hardly an endearing trait.
Perhaps the most important thing Larry Crowne did is remind me how much I enjoy Tom Hanks. A modern Jimmy Stewart, Hanks is clearly one of the most beloved actors working today, a man who took himself from zany, screwball comedies to some of cinema’s most heart-wrenching dramas. But as much as I love films like Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13, I have to admit, especially after the barest taste provided here, that I want to see Hanks do comedy again. Not play at it, like in Larry Crowne, but throw himself back into it, body and soul. I miss Kip Wilson, Rick Gassko, Josh Baskin, Walter Fielding Jr. and all the other roles that defined Hanks’ early career.
Larry Crowne, which resonated with me for reasons I have not and shall not go into here, is fluff, albeit sincere fluff. Even an actor as great and accomplished as Hanks still has a few whoppers hidden up his sleeve. I just know it.