Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 30, 2011 8:11 pm 
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Tom and Julia doing nothing much

Tom Hanks directs himself and Julia Roberts, alone with Cedric the Entertainer, Pam Grier and various others in this disappointing romantic comedy about a man who gets fired from a big-big box chain store because he lacks a college education. On the advice of a neighbor, Crowne (Hanks) enrolls at a junior college where he has Julia Roberts as his speech teacher. This is one of those unfortunate movies that blows up briefly while you're watching it and then deflates in memory to the trailer, which hit all the high spots of the plot and was more sharply edited, with all the fat cut out of every key scene. That fat drags down the movie, which Hanks directed too slowly. And there are a series of subplots and important secondary characters that never quite come together to create an energetic whole.

Larry Crowne has been sanitized. All the spice has been sucked out, and not only do Hanks and Roberts have no chemistry together, but their romance is barely a blip on the scale. They kiss. Big deal. What is this, the Fifties? Worst of all, the writing is lame and unidiomatic. You wonder why stars of this magnitude took on such material, but Hanks deserves some of the blame for it, since he is listed as the co-author along with the star of the Greek ethnic drama My Life in Ruins, Nia Vardelos. She also wrote My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which Hanks co-produced). This movie doesn't provide her with material as close to her experience. The writing here is flatfooted, lame, and tone-deaf.

Larry Crowne has a whiff of the recent (and not very successful) Raymond Carver story adapttation and Will Farrell vehicle, Everything Must Go. That was about a man who gets fired from his job and is evicted from his house by his wife. All his possessions are out on the lawn and he stages a yard sale to raise money. In Larry Crowne, recession is in the air, but it's a colorful black neighbor with a pipe, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs a continual yard sale. At the junior college Larry becomes friends with a young woman who calls herself Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Her boyfriend is Dell (Wilmer Valderrama), a Latino leader of a group who, well, ride around on mopeds. Like everyone else here, the once-hilarious Wilmer Valderrama of That 70s Show has been toned down and sanitized.

The idea is that Talia spruces up Larry's style. This capitalizes on the fact that Hanks' character is hopelessly square by suggesting his squareness can be removed by wearing hipper clothes, having a haircut, getting a new moniker, "Lance Corona," and allowing his living room to be tidied up and rearranged in terms of Feng Shui. This is not a joke: it's taken seriously. This is the transitory, unconvincing world of the TV make-over show. It's just a shtick, and a necessarily half-hearted one since it doesn't even fit the most exploited aspect of Larry's character, his lack of pretension.

One misses some satire of the big-box store world of the kind that occurs in the very amusing 2002 Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaboration, The Good Girl. But the hero too quickly moves on from "Unimart" to the less fertile ground for ridicule of "East Valley College." There are scenes in which Mercedes Tainot (Roberts) teaches her class and a few students emerge as individuals by making comments or doing little improvised speeches. There are references to the intrusion of cell phones in classrooms. Larry is, as it were, Talia's protege, and is drawn into the moped club, which goes to a certain eatery. Larry begins exercising an old skill, working as a short order cook: he was a hash slinger for years in the Navy. There is also an Introduction to Economics class -- it helps show Larry how to get out from under his mortgage debt -- and this is occasion for a series of lame and repetitive pedagogical routines offered by the benevolent dictator in charge, Dr. Matsutani (George Takei).

Ms. Tainot has a failing marriage. Her husband has quit working and become a blogger, only what he really does all day is surf big-boob porn sites. The scenes between Tainot and her husband, Dean (Bryan Cranston) are extremely grating. Eventually there is a fight that suggests the marriage is over, and Larry finds Ms. Tainot waiting at a bus stop, gives her a ride on his second-hand moped, and the romance, such as it is, begins.

The trouble is that all these elements -- the romance, the speech class, the economics class, the colorful neighbor with the perpetual yard sale, the moped club, Larry Crowne's makeover, the pretense that Talia's boyfriend Dell is jealous of Larry, float around in the movie on separate tracks. Not only do they not come together to drive a suspenseful or energetic narrative, but the romance between Larry and Ms. Tainot almost gets lost in the shuffle. Also lost, or at least poorly developed, is the theme of unemployment and economic troubles. It's not clear that Larry Crowne is going to be a new man. It's even a bit uncertain that he and Ms. Tainot are going to be an item. It's hard to imagine a screenplay more in need of a script doctor. And yet this was handed to two of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Julia Roberts has a million-dollar smile, and her scenes halfway bring the movie to life. But this is one of her weakest projects in years. Tom Hanks is an immensely appealing actor and he might have made this kind of character and situation into something that would make you laugh and cry. But the material just isn't there. As Justin Chang points out in his review, Julia Roberts has been made to dampen down her charm and play her character as mean-spirited and angry and later as a one-note man-hunter, while Hanks plays his character as all goofy and cute, shamelessly courting the audience at every turn with charming (made-over) dorkiness. The combination of the two characters makes no sense. Julia and Tom were last together in 2007 for the Aaron Sorkin-Mike Nichols collaboration Charlie Wilson's War, a movie that was not an unqualified success, but at least was enlivened by a rich real-life political intrigue story and had some zing to it. This is a real dud. Avoid.

Larry Crowne opens wide in the US July 1, 2011.

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