You Got to Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive, by Scott Nye
How could anyone hate Larry Crowne? I ask this in spite of the dismal reviews the film has been receiving thus far, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine. That’s your prerogative. It’s certainly not a perfect movie – the “romantic comedy” aspect is such a massive afterthought, and the decision to suddenly make that the absolute focal point in act three is a strange one – but it’s one of such generosity of spirit and modest ambitions that seeking its destruction seems like a display of excessive force.
Tom Hanks stars as the title character, who served twenty years in the Navy, and is now working at U-Mart, which is exactly the kind of store it sounds like. Rather than approach each day like a crushing bore, Larry finds ways to inject life and humor into everything from stocking the shelves to selling vacuum cleaners. That is, until he’s fired. The reason given is slightly more complex than “you never went to college” (and, to be fair, a character later asks Larry why he believed that they were being honest), which is admittedly a bit of a stretch. Sure, it provides the impetus to get Larry to enroll in community college, thus starting the movie, but it could have just as easily come about because he got fired for any other reason and all the jobs out there for him required a college degree.
At any rate, off to school he goes. He meets Talia (a very winning Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who instantly picks him out as a bit of a project for her, and damn if Mbatha-Raw doesn’t sell the hell out of it. I suppose if you’re adverse to the “manic-pixie-dream-girl” type, you’ll let out a heavy sigh every time she’s onscreen, but if you’re game for a compelling, entertaining, likable performance, then full speed ahead. Larry enrolls in Speech 217 – The Art of Informal Remarks (a class title that I’ve never encountered, but is a lot of fun to say), taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts). Mercedes is, like Larry, at the end of her rope, but rather than looking for a way to reinvent herself, she’s pouring back wine and martinis in every free second, regretting her marriage (to a porn addict), her career (she has a Masters in Shakespeare, but too few students sign up for that course to let her teach what she knows), and nearly every decision she makes, starting with getting up in the morning. And you can roughly guess the trajectory of her interaction with Larry from there.
Refreshingly, the film doesn’t treat Larry’s school-at-age-fifty as the track to a better career. By the end of the film, we don’t find ourselves four years ahead and Larry owning his own business or some load, but merely at the start of a new term. Instead, Larry’s journey is a spiritual one – college becomes the avenue by which he meets people he never would have before, is exposed to new ideas surrounding fashion (courtesy of Talia) and lifestyle (in his introduction to economics class, Larry learns the skills to get out of his mortgage and prioritize his spending). He finds that he has important things to say and stories to tell. He joins a “scooter gang” that spends their free time riding around to no place in particular.
In fact, for all the talk of the “timeliness” of the film, it’s really not all that sanctimonious (nowhere near as much as Jason Reitman’s troubled Up in the Air, a film that really could have been about something if it wasn’t so concerned with being about something). There’s no talk of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” or any of that. The current economic crisis is a backdrop, okay, but why shouldn’t there be movies about people who fall on hard times and get a new lease on life as a result? I’ve heard the rather lame complaint that “oh, two of the world’s biggest movie stars are doing a movie about losing your job, like I’d ever buy that.” But honestly, what the hell? Charlie Chaplin almost exclusively made movies about how much it sucks being poor, and he was the biggest star in the world for a time. One of my favorite moments in any James Stewart movie is the part in The Shop Around the Corner when he asks his coworker if it’s okay for him to go get married on such a little salary, noting there’s no room to entertain guests. Movie stars are, at their core, actors, and the idea that Hanks or Roberts aren’t allowed to play people of a certain economic stratosphere simply because they have lots of money is insane.
Julia Roberts gets kind of a bad rap (as is typically the case when a predominantly female audience makes a woman a movie star), but she has a great presence, and when she’s given the right kind of character, she runs away with it. As well as Roberts can sell life-loving happiness (and she’ll get that chance in a brief moment of drunkenness that the trailers have predictably simplified), I love her when she’s allowed to express absolute disdain, as she does through much of this. The supporting cast is wonderful – led by a fearless Mbatha-Raw, it also includes Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as Larry’s neighbors, Pam Grier as Mercedes’ coworker, Bryan Cranston as Mercedes’ porn-addicted husband, and oh yeah, George Takei as Larry’s economics professor. Takei has made something of a career out of self-referential work, always a good sport about it, too, but it’s so wonderful to see him go full-force into an actual character. He’s probably the most outwardly comedic character, but Takei has such command of his every moment onscreen that he totally sells the heightened reality.
Hanks is inescapably Hanks, and while elements of his performance do feel like he’s trying to regain his own youth, his best are when you can feel the years behind him. At one point, he laments to Lamar that he probably should have let go of his house when he got divorced, but couldn’t let go of the idea that he’d see his children grow up there. When he has to give his final speech for the term, he talks about how, in the Navy, he sailed around the world five times, and everything he saw while at sea. It’s far and away the film’s most affecting moment, largely due to how Hanks sells it, and if it was the film’s only point of emotion, it’d save the whole enterprise. And if that makes me an easy sell for sentimentality, then so be it.
Larry Crowne falters most when it tries to be a romantic comedy, and the precise note that it ends on is not entirely earned, but for most of its running time, as the story of spiritual rebirth in the modern age, it’s pretty damn good. Light and modest, sure, but refreshingly free of the cynicism that plagues modern filmmaking, Larry Crowne honestly and earnestly believes the best in people. It might be a fantasy, but it’s my kind of fantasy.