Why is this picture called Larry Crowne? Is it because the filmmaker and star, Tom Hanks, buys into the limp orthodoxy that he is an American everyman figure? Is it because he has vague hopes that this is a story about everyday, good-natured American stick-at-it-ness, in the league of Jerry Maguire or Erin Brockovich? Or is it because no one involved in the making of it really knows what the film is about?
Just think for a moment how the film’s attitude toward us, and its sense of purpose, might shift if the title was, For Example, Larry Crowne? And why not? Larry went straight from high school into the Navy, where he served 20 years as a cook and sailed four times around the world. Nearing 40, he left the service, had a marriage that failed, and went to work for “UMart.” He seems a diligent servant to that huge and numbing floorspace. On his way to work, he tidies up the car park. He’s industrious and amiable, and he has been employee of the month nine times in … how many years? Well, Hanks is 56, and he looks it. But, instead of winning employee of the month a tenth time in the film, he is fired. Then, he gets a community college education—and Julia Roberts. For Example, Larry Crowne?
Except maybe not, for that title would be too close to a slap in the face for the millions of people in the film’s indeterminate suburban California setting who are out of work but can’t find a Julia. Hanks may harbor decent patriotic impulses and the millionaire liberalism that becalms Hollywood, but he lacks the courage or the impulse to examine the dismay of so many real people like Larry. He would rather take the line that his picture is simply a temporary two-hour delight and consolation for those undergoing unemployment and foreclosure. (That comes to Larry, too, in the person of an unctuous bank manager—played by Rita Wilson, the real-life Mrs. Hanks—who believes the pain can be dissolved in a complimentary cup of coffee.) At least the recent film Up in the Air—where George Clooney was a suave expert in firing people, oblivious to his own lack of grounding—felt real damage.
Larry Crowne is too wary to handle pain, namely the recent economic collapse for which citizens and politicians alike need to take responsibility. Instead, Larry “buckles down.” He trades in his Suburban for a motor scooter, and he goes to community college because UMart abandons him for not going to college. Hanks himself dropped out of Cal State, Sacramento; so much of Hollywood liberalism is based on the inane assumption that, if I can do it, anyone can!
Crowne signs on at a college that has the educational expectations of about the seventh grade and a band of lovable students the likes of which Kotter might have raised. His public speaking class is led by Mercedes Tainot—the film spends about 5 percent of its time teaching us how to spell and pronounce that name—played by Julia Roberts. “Mercy” is not just unhappy, she is the only unhappy person in the film. Why? Because she has to teach at this dump of a school, and because she is married to a scumbag who once wrote a couple of books but now porn-surfs and will tell his wife (when they’re both drunk) that he likes women with big breasts, which he tells her she doesn’t have.
This hurts her, and it should. Roberts is 43, and she has acquired a hard look in repose, but her legs are wonders of this world and her smile brings back childhood in any beneficiary. She could smile away underwater mortgages as easily as Erin Brockovich got damages. The smile comes at the close of the film, when Larry gives a cute final talk about geography and Mercy decides to give him an A+, though she tells him she’s “a hard A.” He’ll find out, for they are in love. You could be, too. It’s the old dream of rescue.
Will the unemployed and underwater be persuaded? Does the film even care, or will it settle for two hours of moist tissue entertainment and our ticket money? Hanks stars, he directs, he co-wrote the script (with Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding)—and he ought to be ashamed.
When he helped produce the TV mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, he did not rise above middlebrow, but he showed a genuine concern for men who went to war. When he directed his first film, That Thing You Do! (15 ago), he showed verve, wit, and an interest in actual behavior. Hanks has also been a good actor (in Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, and Charlie Wilson’s War). But, on the whole, he has deteriorated in nearly every respect. Did he pick up a sentimentality disease on Forrest Gump? Why did he do those dreadful Dan Brown adaptations?
And why is the coziness of Larry Crowne so depleting? As well as public speaking, Mercy teaches a class on “Shakespeare the Politician,” but we are never trusted with a word of it. Larry also takes an economics class (led by George Takei), which could have been an opportunity for a lucid analysis of the economy that has got rid of so many Larry Crownes. Paul Krugman should have played the teacher.
There is also so much we don’t know. Like why Larry’s marriage failed, or why Mercy is an alcoholic. What is Larry going to do with his A+? What will the blissful couple do with the rest of their lives? And why is this sprawling, mall-made California as desolate as a prison?
This could have been a film about our America, with humor and charm and legitimate hope. But it is the old, stale dream knocked down to $1.99. And hope’s last chance now has to begin with anger and the truth.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.