Friday, July 1, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life for 'Larry Crowne'

Dell (Wilmer Valderrama), Larry (Tom Hanks), Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the rest of the scooter gang on the move in "Larry Crowne." Photos by Bruce Talamon/Vendôme International, LLC.

IN 2011 in the United States of America, is it possible to make a film ostensibly targeted to adults that has virtually no profanity, no violence and only two innocuous kissing scenes?

Perhaps, that is the wrong question. The film has already been made and released. The better question is how will it do at the box office. If it bombs, there goes the neighborhood. If it is at least a modest hit, however, happy days are here again.

That will no doubt be a question surrounding “Larry Crowne,” the latest vehicle from Hollywood powerbroker Tom Hanks who not only stars as the title character in the film, but is also the director, co-writer and co-producer. It opens nationwide today.

Larry Crowne is a Navy vet who works as a salesman at a Wal-Mart type superstore chain. In a down economy layoffs are imminent and the first to go will be those without a college degree. Despite Larry’s long and stellar service, he gets the axe.

Immediately, he enrolls in community college where he takes at least two courses. One is a public speaking class taught by professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) who frankly could give a damn. The other is an economics class presided over by Dr. Matsutani (George Takei of “Star Trek” fame) who frankly could give a damn about anybody’s theories, excepting his own.

Talia chats up Larry in economics class in "Larry Crowne."

One day after class Larry meets effervescent coed Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in what has the makings of a breakout role for her) at the scooter parking lot. He’d recently bought the machine from his neighbor, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) who seems to have a perpetual garage sale in progress. Talia promptly invites Larry to join her club. He accepts and is taken into its bosom, though grudgingly so by Talia’s boyfriend, Dell (Wilmer Valderrama). Larry’s new life is going swimmingly. (See videos and trailers at

“Larry Crowne” is really about one man’s quest to reinvent himself in a world in which he has become irrelevant. When Larry is laid off he doesn’t do anything so banally dramatic as getting drunk and having a one-night stand. As close to drama as he veers is during a semi-pity party with Lamar, which is perfectly understandable. Lamar will have none of it. He basically tells Larry to get over himself. After all, Larry is white and can easily start anew.

Larry sucks it up and takes life as it comes. He’s never been in a college classroom and it shows in a way. His preparedness and eagerness to learn betray him. Though he is the old guy in the scooter gang, he doesn’t make a fool of himself by trying to adopt a veneer of coolness that he does not possess. In fact, it is Talia who bestows on him some cool. She feng shui’s his house, gets his hair cut, and puts him in new threads and sunglasses from the bounty in her storage locker. Larry is as comfortable in the leather jacket, formfitting dark button-down shirts and skinnyesque jeans as he was in the polo short, Dockers and Ray-Bans that made him look like a cop.

Larry (center) gets strong support from neighbors, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B'Ella (Taraji P. Henson), in "Larry Crowne."

“Larry Crowne,” inspired by TH's junior college experience, unfolds like a roadtrip. The joy is in the journey, not the destination. There’s no D-R-A-M-A, hot messes and other foolishness; no sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – not really – no smart-alecky or precocious kids. Yet the film commands the attention. It has an innocence about it and it has few hokey moments, too. Mostly, it is good, wholesome entertainment that is a throwback to Old Hollywood and 50s-era television, but with a 21st-century edginess. While Taraji P. Henson is wasted in the role of Lamar’s wife B’Ella, she makes the most of what she has, channeling June Cleaver.

An aside: Most of the actresses are wasted in “Larry Crowne,” including JR. Pam Grier as Mercedes’ colleague gets the shortest shrift. Only GM-R as Talia is given anything interesting to do. It is she who is the leading lady in “Larry Crowne,” not JR. But this is Hollywood and stars are needed to make bank. Still, why couldn’t the women have fared better; their male counterparts did.

CtE is delightfully avuncular and slightly curmudgeonly as the good neighbor. Bryan Cranston as Mercedes’ porn-loving husband Dean is a riot as a toad and general sleazeball. Best of all among the men is GT. He is knee-slapping funny as the economics professor with high and mighty self-esteem. Shortcomings aside, TH has assembled the kind of cast that will appeal to the widest possible audience.

Larry must relinquish his mobile phone to Dr. Dr. Matsutani (George Takei)in "Larry Crowne."

No doubt, audiences will like "Larry Crowne." How could they not? Could anyone play this character other than TH and not make him seem like a sap? Not very likely. TH’s performance is utterly understated and without guile. Larry is a decent, principled man, and TH is able to convey this with one earnest look, blink of the eye or worrying of the lower lip. Larry is reminiscent of James Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His first instinct is to do the honorable thing. He believes in the best of everyone and challenges everyone to do his best. Do such men even exist in this culture anymore? Sure they do, they’re just fewer and farther between.

“Larry Crowne” doesn’t end with a bang or wimper. It simply has a happy ending – old Hollywood style.

Larry Crowne is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content."

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