Tom Hanks has worn many hats over the years, not least of which are the animated ones his doppelgänger Woody wore in the successful series of Toy Story films. Beginning his film career in comedy, early successes with Splash and Big, Hanks solidified his reputation as a comedic actor, although a string of flops (The ‘Burbs, Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities) led Hanks to more dramatic performances. The move proved to be a winning one for Hanks, becoming only the second actor (following Spencer Tracey) to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Since then, Hanks has balanced him comedic and dramatic roles more carefully, from major ensembles The Green Mile and Saving Private Ryan, one-man show Cast Away and major blockbusters such as The Da Vinci Code. With Larry Crowne, Hanks not only re-teams with Charlie Wilson’s War co-star Julia Roberts, but puts his director’s cap back on for the first time since 1996’s That Thing You Do.
Larry Crowne (Hanks) is a middle-aged Navy veteran who is fired from his job at a large retail store when the company decides that his lack of education hinders his chances of promotion. Broke and depressed, Larry takes the advice of his neighbour (Cedric the Entertainer, Madagascar) and sells off most of his possessions to enrol in college for the first time. Making friends with the college kids, Larry begins to fall for cynical educator Mercedes (Julia Roberts, Eat Pray Love).
Nothing about Larry Crowne makes sense. From the insensitive and baffling dismissal of Larry at the start of the film, to the juvenile antics at the community college, this is not a film born of this plane of reality. That Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, My Life in Ruins) is the co-writer on this brain spasm should have been the first clue that Larry Crowne was destined for a less than spectacular end-product. Yet the extent to which this film goes to prove its own stupidity is mind-blowing. Despite being set at a community college, and going to great lengths to remind us “this is not high school”, everything else about Larry Crowne follows the motifs of the troubled school dramas. Students are petulant and uninterested in the classes they are seemingly being “forced” into, teachers chastise students for being tardy or texting in class (a fact of everyday life in a tertiary institution) and lecture theatres seem to be custom built with permanent bronze signs for the academics. Are there only two classes being taught on the campus? We could just as easily put this all down to a piece of Hollywood fancy, from two people who have not walked the same ground as us mere mortals for quite some decades, were it not for the shocking characterisation of most of the principle cast.
Hanks and Roberts have been described as America’s sweethearts, but that brings with it a certain amount of saccharine that when overdone, can lead to diabetes and the potential for losing a foot. Hanks has turned in some terrific dramatic performances under Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Jonathan Demme, Frank Darabont, Sam Mendes and Ron Howard. Yet under the direction of himself, Hanks shows that his hapless persona can only take him so far under his own tutelage. Julia Roberts brings that role she plays to Mercedes the teacher, the same slightly bullying, loud-mouthed persona that has followed her since at least 1990’s Pretty Woman. How anybody puts up with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Talia, a woman who snatches phones from Larry’s hands and rearranges his furniture on a whim, without firing her from a canon is baffling. Yet the most troubling aspect of Larry Crowne is that it comes from a very real place of people dealing with the after-effects of the global financial crisis, and a great film is yet to be made on the subject. It just shouldn’t be written, directed and starring a Hollywood A-Lister for whom the financial crisis is just another opportunity to ham the camera.
Larry Crowne was released on 21 July 2011 in Australia from Pinnacle.