With the state of the American economy still far from what you might call flourishing, it’s only natural that films would continue to reflect that. While we may not be in the textbook definition of a recession, the job market still sucks. It is apparently with that in mind that Hollywood has deigned to give us Larry Crowne.
Tom Hanks stars as the titular Larry Crowne. Larry is a happy, upbeat guy working as a team leader at a big box department store called Umart. He’s clearly a hard worker who likes his job and everyone seems to like him, so when he’s called to the back one day he assumes it’s because he’s won his 9th Employee of the Month certificate. To his shock, he learns that he’s being fired because he never completed college and thus will never advance farther than his current rung on the Umart corporate ladder.
His firing makes absolutely no sense. Big companies like that don’t fire guys simply because they have no ability to advance any farther. They are perfectly happy paying him his $13 an hour and letting him live out the rest of his days as a team leader. Also, their sticking point of his lack of a college degree feels antiquated. While that was certainly the case several years ago, these days college degrees seem almost completely worthless. Employers care about whether or not you can do the job you were hired for, not whether or not you took out $30,000 in student loans to spend 4 years memorizing and regurgitating inane facts. The plot is illogical from the outset.
Of course, this logical divide doesn’t stop the movie from plowing full speed ahead and so Larry decides to attend community college to get his degree. He even states his reasoning thusly, “so I can never be fired for that reason again.” Nevermind the fact that Larry is like 50 and has had almost no luck finding another job. School is clearly the answer for him at this stage in life. So off he goes. I believe he actually does enroll in 3 classes for the first term, though we only ever see two of them. His econ class taught by none other than George Takei, the one source of the film’s few genuinely funny moments and his speech class taught by Merecedes Tainot, a character name so ridiculous and unnecessarily pretentious as to be laughable. The only thing better is that her friends and family call her Mercy for short. Dear Mercy is played by the usually wonderful Julia Roberts who was either suffering from migraines or a constant hangover throughout the entire shoot, making her character almost completely unlikable. Though some credit for that should be given to the script written by Nia Vardalos, who you’ll remember from Neurotic Women Deserve Unconditional Love Too, Even If They’re From Greece.
I wish I had kept a running tally of how many times characters say the words “men” and “women” and proceed to discuss gender roles in the most stereotypical way possible. Men are losers and porn addicts and women are creative and beautiful and that’s the just the way things are, or so the script would have you believe.
We’re meant to love Mercedes even though we’re given no reasons to, but the ultimate example of the creative woman is Talia, an attractive young woman who meets Larry on his first day in scooter row and decides that he’s awesome, again for no discernible reason. She even allows Larry to join her gang…of scooter riders. Yes, this is an actual plot point. There’s even a scene where Larry is inducted as all the members snap their fingers like the Jets in West Side Story. Talia exists solely to make Larry cool, or whatever cool is supposed to be. By the end of the film, he’s wearing dark jeans and vests, with a new, cooler haircut and a chain for his wallet. There a few hints at a romantic relationship between them if only to cause a bit of conflict between Larry and Mercedes and also between Larry and Wilmer Valderrama, the slick haired, leather jacket wearing gang leader who is sort of kind of supposed to be Talia’s boyfriend. But these whispers of conflict are so watered down that no one actually ever gets upset or even raises their voice over it. As if to further controvert the views on the economy presented by the opening conflict, Talia drops out of college to open her own thrift store. Apparently men need degrees, but women are just fine without them.
The terrible script panders blatantly to the female audience by describing all the male characters as cliches and stereotypes. Steve Dibiasi is the typical bumbling idiot in Larry’s speech class. Larry’s neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) is the cheapskate semi-swindler, always trying to get more money for items than they’re worth at his year-round garage sale. He’s like a used-car salesman: not a bad guy, but a little smarmy. Even Larry Crowne himself is basically a boyish man-child. He’s overly messy because he’s a single man living alone. He needs a woman to help him arrange his house and his life. Apparently, we can’t even take out our own trash. What would we men do without women? According to Nia Vardalos, we’d all be helpless and hopeless.
But Mercedes’s husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) is probably the most egregious example of this. His character exists only as a further stumbling block to the burgeoning romance between Larry and Mercedes, as if the teacher student thing and general incompatibility weren’t enough. There’s no depth to him; he’s simply a douchebag. Or, at least, that’s what we’re supposed to think about him. His qualifications for douchebaggery include being a failed writer and sitting at home looking at “porn” all day. When Mercedes calls him on this, he responds by stating repeatedly that he is a man and this is what men do.
You’ll notice that I put that word porn in quotations. This is because the porn that Nia Vardalos assumes men obsess over is about on par with what a 12-year-old just discovering masturbation might look at. Despite the fact that this is 2011 and the internet provides instant access to the most nasty and debaucherous imagery you can possibly imagine, Dean is sated by looking at still photos of well-endowed women in skimpy outfits. This month’s Playboy is more titillating than his porn.
Surprisingly enough, the porn is in fact relevant to a discussion of the film, as it serves as the catalyst for the end of Mercedes’s marriage. She’s actually upset that he looks at these pictures. The final straw comes as they drive home from dinner one night sniping at each other and he blurts out that he likes big knockers and she’s just mad that she doesn’t have them. She tells him to pull over, despite his quick apologies and insistence that he’ll take it back. I’m not sure if she was mad that he liked big knockers or mad that he quite factually pointed out that she didn’t have them. It’s not like Julia Roberts is rocking DD or anything. In any event, she gets out and, as he drives off, he gets the last word in, exclaiming once more that he likes big knockers. Now that’s great dialogue!
Scenes are cut together completely haphazardly with absolutely no sense of overall tone or story structure. But it goes beyond simply odd and enters the land of completely nonsensical. For example, there’s a long sequence in which Larry gives Mercedes a ride home on his scooter after the breakup scene between her and her husband. Mercedes spent the entire car sequence completely sober. She’s sitting at a bus bench, completely sober when Larry drives up and offers her a ride. Somehow, by the time they get to her place, she’s magically drunk, with no indication whatsoever of how she got that way. Despite the fact that she’s not really stumbling or slurring any words, we know she’s drunk, because she’s fumbling around and generally acting like a crazy person. In fact, when we get to the part where they kiss, which anyone who’s seen more than 11 films in their life will see coming a mile away, she jumps up, throws her legs around him and swings around like a monkey.
We are reminded of the fact that she was drunk the next morning, when she is clearly hungover in class asking Larry to keep quiet about their mistake. She even blames the demon rum. But despite her supposed supernatural inebriation, after Larry left, she managed to pull all of her husband’s shit outside, including his computer and huge monitor. She was even able to hook the computer back up and bring up his so-called porn on it. That’s one high-functioning miraculous drunk.
The movie bumbles its way towards its inevitable conclusion. Everyone knows from the first frame of Julia Roberts that she and Hanks are supposed to end up together at the end of the movie. The process of getting to that ending is as convoluted and contrived as possible. The thing is, Larry Crowne seems like a decent guy. The film gives us no reason why he would want to be with Mercedes other than the fact that it’s Julia Roberts so that’s what is supposed to happen. She’s cold, distant and unhappy–almost the complete opposite of Larry. Aside from the scene in front of her house, the film never really shows another side of her. I think she might have smiled three times during the whole damn film. There’s no reason for Larry to like her and as a result no reason for us as the audience to want them to get together.
Despite the fact that Hanks is given a co-writing credit with Vardalos, the way I understand it is she wrote the script and sold it to Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson. I’m not sure how much he actually had to do with the script, but I sincerely hope it was minimal. That said, some of the blame has to fall on Hanks’s shoulders since he directed it. I’m genuinely shocked that a man as talented as Tom Hanks wanted anything to do with this script and even more surprised that he let this thing out the door with his name on it as director, producer and c0-writer.
This is a film that is almost offensive in its stereotypical views on gender roles. It has a childish view of the recession and the world in general. It wastes some truly great actors by reducing their characters to mere cliches or plot devices. Aside from the fact that is decently framed and almost always in focus, it is a failure on almost every level. Larry Crowne, I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul.
The Upside: It manages to keep things brief, running a relatively brisk 99 minutes. Despite all its flaws, and they are legion, Hanks is still pretty likable, as always. I wanted things to turn out well for his character, I just wish he were in a better movie.
The Downside: Everything else.
On the Side: The end credits are comprised of Hanks and Roberts riding the scooter against a green screen. Digital backgrounds are then added. The ones used lead me to believe that the producer’s 9-year-old daughter was given the keyed footage and then played around in Photo Booth and iMovie. I’m not even shitting you, it looks like an early 90s music video. It starts with the weird mirror effect and goes to images of bad interlaced TV, comic book sketches and road signs. There’s even a Route 66 sign and at one point, Hanks and Roberts break the 4th wall and wave to the audience.