Friday, July 8, 2011

Special Education: LARRY CROWNE

The most dispiriting aspect of Larry Crowne, a dismal new comedy co-written and directed by Tom Hanks, who also takes the titular role, is the way it strides forward, places its finger on the pulse of modern America and then scurries away, never to contemplate such resonance again. This one well-pitched moment comes, fittingly enough, right at the film’s opening that introduces us to Larry Crowne. He’s a nine-time employee-of-the-month at U-Mart, a fitting string of commendations for a man who spent twenty years as a Navy cook. Called into the break room by his boss, fully expecting to be awarded yet again, Larry is dismayed to find that, due to his lack of a college education, he has been deemed insufficiently upwardly mobile within the corporation and therefore must be fired.

In a time of high unemployment, rampant corporate malfeasance, and an identity crisis within a certain section of the lower middle class demographic that has found well-paying jobs increasingly unavailable without college, the premise of Larry Crowne could not be timelier. Unable to find a new job Crowne sets off for the local community college, at the suggestion of his neighbors played by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson, and settles down, like so many of his real-life counterparts, to try to learn his way back into the job force.

Unlike the wild, experimental, and unexpectedly moving sitcom Community, one of my favorite current TV shows, which often achieves its impact ironically or through surprising detours, Larry Crowne is poised to use the terrain of community college for simple good old fashioned Capra-esque uplift. There’s the sad teacher (Julia Roberts) who just needs to pull her messy personal life together to, doggone it, inspire her students. There’s the strict teacher (George Takai) who has his students’ best interests at heart. There’s the hip gang of scooter commuters (led by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wilmer Valderrama) who are all too ready to embrace a middle-aged doofus like Larry and selflessly help him turn his life around and get back on his feet. This is the kind of cast that could be airlifted out and placed in a great movie. Instead, they’re stuck here.

The movie is awfully cutesy and wispy, to the point where each and every scene feels like a digression, scenes that start nowhere and in their flat, unremarkable visual style, work backwards to irrelevance. The characters are so simply, clumsily drawn by Hanks and his co-writer, the one-hit-wonder behind 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding Nia Vardalos, that it feels hard to find any reason to care about these people or even believe that they would interact in the ways that they do. Friendship, respect, and romance all seem to be forced upon them by the screenplay. It’s as if Hanks and Vardalos came up with a great idea, sketched out a rough first draft and then decided to film it without further development. This is a loose and flabby picture that, despite being so earnest, is utterly devoid of backbone.

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