It is with some astonishment that I realize that until now Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have never played romantic leads opposite each other in a romantic comedy. In fact, until Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007 they had never even shared the big screen before. Charlie Wilson’s War was a black political comedy in which Hanks’s character dallies with a number of women, including Roberts’ character, but the movie isn’t about that. Larry Crowne, only their second film together, comes over 20 years after Roberts played opposite Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. In that same year, Hanks played opposite Meg Ryan in the first of three films together.
Thinking about this in connection with Larry Crowne feels kind of like approaching your 20-year high-school reunion and realizing that the prom king and queen never had the big dance or kiss they were meant to have — and that now, at the reunion, they’ll get their chance.
You almost know it’s going to be a letdown, don’t you? The old prom king is unexpectedly dull and introverted. The queen is withdrawn and brittle, and seems irritated by the king’s very existence. By the time they get out on the floor, she’s drunk. Their first kiss is a embarrassing, drunken, lewd clinch with no emotional payoff. And so on.
When we first meet Larry Crowne (Hanks), he’s an enthusiastic blue-collar worker at a big-box store — the kind of go-getting team player who picks up trash in the parking lot before punching in and takes responsibility with such cheer that you would enjoy shopping at Larry’s U Mart, and would enjoy having him as your coworker, unless you hated him.
Scarcely after the opening credits are finished, Larry finds himself downsized. In a gratuitously manipulative and implausible scene, Larry, summoned via PA system, thinks he’s been named employee of the month yet again, only to find himself facing a firing squad of four or five superiors who proceed to explain that not firing Larry would be cruel and unethnical since Larry, a Navy vet, has never been to college and so has no career advancement path at U Mart. A former peer openly smirks and makes cracks like “You’re forever retarded because you didn’t go to college” and “Who would have thought I’d get promoted over you?” If you work at Wal-Mart or Target, or if you’ve lost a job at one of them, I would love to know what you think of these scenes.
Did you know it’s a tough economy? The people who made Larry Crowne have heard this. Larry, a divorcé with too much house, too much car and too much mortgage, brings his go-getter attitude to the job search, to no avail. Eventually he decides to take some classes at a community college in hopes of burnishing his credentials. The dean of students gloms to him, makes small talk, and personally recommends a number of courses, including a public speaking course taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) which he says will change Larry’s life — and he’ll like the teacher, wink wink nudge nudge. The dean wanders through a couple of other scenes, sitting in on Tainot’s class, but has nothing else to do in the film. If you have attended community college, or work at one, I would love to know what you think of these scenes.
Roberts doesn’t look like a Mercedes Tainot to me, but what do I know? In one of the film’s two touches that might suggest a woman’s perspective behind the screenplay, we meet Roberts in one of those clichéd shots in which a car pulls into a parking space and the camera zooms in low to the driver’s-side door, so that our first view of the driver will be the foot coming out of the car — in the case of a female driver, usually a fetishized foot in high heels, followed by a pan up the legs as the actress emerges. Instead, a hand awkwardly places a pair of shoes on the pavement, and stocking feet emerge from the car to wiggle into the shoes.
Hanks, directing for the first time since his debut That Thing You Do!, co-wrote the screenplay with his friend Nia Vardalos, a one-hit wonder whose My Big Fat Greek Wedding was produced by Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, who like Vardalos is Greek Orthodox. Based on available evidence, both Hanks and Vardalos tend toward slack, low-conflict storytelling, and the convergence of their sensibilities is an almost somnolent series of anecdotes in search of a story. Vardalos’s penchant for stereotypes manifests itself in Hanks’s fellow classmates, such as a Trekkie who does a presentation in a Starfleet uniform and talks about his ideal education path at Starfleet Academy, and one of Hanks’s other teachers, played by a goofily mugging George Takei.
Mercedes is almost as disaffected and apathetic a teacher as Cameron Diaz’s character Elizabeth in last week’s Bad Teacher. Fourteen years ago Roberts and Diaz competed for a man in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I remember how surprised I was when Roberts, America’s Sweetheart, turned out to be the wrongful interloper, while an ingenuous Diaz emerged as the deserving front-runner. Now here they are in similar off-putting teacher roles, both sitting silent and aloof from their students, doing as little teaching as possible, hitting the booze too hard — and both with issues about their cup sizes. Elizabeth in Bad Teacher wants implants, while Mercedes lives with the knowledge that her husband Dean (Bryan Cranston), ostensibly developing a blogging career from home, actually spends his time looking at busty women on the Internet.
Mercedes’ humiliation over Dean’s porn habit is the movie’s other possible touch of a female perspective. When she confronts him about it, he initially denies it, then tries to downplay it. “I know you hope I don’t know and that I don’t mind, but I do,” she tells him with cold, quiet anger. His guilty-defensive response: “I’m a guy … who’s a guy … being a guy.” You know the shot in the movie poster with Roberts flashing her 5000-watt smile riding on a scooter behind Hanks? She’s smiling because they just passed Dean pulled over and being arrested, presumably for drunk driving. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time she smiles in the film.
Mercedes is also drunk at the time, which is why she’s riding on the back of Larry’s scooter. Until that point Mercedes has never shown anything but exasperation that she has to put up with Larry, who is about as lacking in speaking skills as a functional adult can be. That evening, though, he finds her stranded at a bus stop and offers her a ride home, and on her doorstep she makes a drunken pass at him. She’s drunk because she was out to dinner with Dean, and she was stranded at the bus stop because their running fight about his Internet porn habit boiled over on the drive home, and she insisted on getting out of the car. She makes a pass at Larry because — well, there’s not really a reason for that one, is there? Larry kisses her back because, … well, because he’s a guy who’s a guy being a guy, I guess. She sure hasn’t given him any other reason. Then he does the honorable thing and sees her inside and closes the door.
Larry bought his scooter from a neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) because gas is expensive, don’t’cha know, and before long the old boy falls in with a coterie of young scooter-riders through the auspices of a classmate, a whimsical young woman of color named Talia. Talia is the kind of woman who isn’t really named Talia but likes to call herself that, and she’s played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who really is named that, and acts like it. Before you can say “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” Talia takes on Larry like a project, giving him a nickname of his own (“Lance Corona”), a total makeover (haircut, clothes, house) and a new outlook on life. Mercedes also has a black female friend who sweeps like a force of nature into Mercedes’ apartment after Dean’s been kicked out, announcing, “There’s not a woman in the world who hasn’t stood where you’re standing!” Um. Yeah, actually, I think there is.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.