Friday, July 1, 2011

Larry Crowne: Long may he reign

Larry Crowne (2011) • View trailer for Larry Crowne
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and occasional sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.1.11

True movie stars could captivate us while shopping for groceries.

Tom Hanks, my generation’s esteemed answer to Henry Fonda, charms with every word and gesture. When on camera, he brightens the most mundane task, adds sparkle to the most ordinary line. His questioning gazes are pregnant with hidden meaning; his double-takes are to die for.
Try as he might, Larry (Tom Hanks) can't seem to impress or even satisfy his
public speaking teacher, Mercedes (Julia Roberts). Sadly, Larry doesn't know
that Mercedes has made ill-advised assumptions about some of the other
people in his life. Can a budding relationship survive such misunderstandings?

He projects the sort of uncomplicated ease that Cary Grant also wore so well, suggesting that Hanks would be the ideal neighbor, dinner guest, friend of the family or boon companion. We must credit his on-camera craft for this, of course, although all indications suggest that the off-camera Hanks is the same genuinely pleasant fellow. I envy his friends and family members.

While never without work as an actor, Hanks has been quite selective about the projects he chooses to write and/or direct. Although involved in such capacities with episodes of the TV miniseries dramas From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, Hanks hasn’t written or directed a big-screen film since 1996’s thoroughly delightful That Thing You Do.

Our loss. And now our gain, with the release of Hanks’ sophomore feature, Larry Crowne.

This gentle romantic saga places Hanks in the sort of role that suits him best: that of a quiet Everyman who, faced with a real-world crisis that could strike any one of us, meets the challenge with calm dignity. He displays the bearing and demeanor that we’d love to summon at such a moment: the personification of what we hope is the best part of ourselves.

Hanks shares scripting credit with Nia Vardalos, best known for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Vardalos’ subsequent career has been spotty: Greek Wedding made an ill-advised transition to television — best forgotten — and then she stumbled with her next two scripts: Connie and Carla and I Hate Valentine’s Day, the latter all but unreleased.

Larry Crowne, on the other hand, represents a deft meeting of the minds: an impeccably polished and delightfully constructed script that perfectly suits its chosen genre. This is how a romantic comedy should be done, with careful attention also paid to minor characters, and whimsical payoffs for incidental bits of business (such as where to hide a spare key, for those occasions when one is locked out of one’s own home).

Casting director Jeanne McCarthy also deserves praise for having assembled a great roster of performers to fill all those roles, and Hanks — as director — brings out their best. The result is a film we wish wouldn’t end: an enchanting divertissement that will stand among Hollywood’s most enduring romantic charmers.

Hanks’ Larry Crowne, an unpleasant divorce somewhere in his past (we never meet the ex), has found happiness as a sterling employee at U-Mart, the sort of big-box store that has become ubiquitous these days. Larry always has a smile first thing in the morning, and he’s beloved by customer and fellow worker alike. He routinely wins Employee of the Month accolades.

He’s therefore stunned when called before the head honchos one morning, in order to be fired.

This scene is an early indication of both the sharpness of Hanks and Vardalos’ script, and the mildly unsettling edge that Hanks (as director) can bring to a group dynamic. Larry’s supervisors put on a phony hail-fellow-well-met attitude, trying to minimize their own discomfort, while oblivious to the pain they’re causing a man who has given everything to this job, and clearly doesn’t deserve such treatment. The resulting scene is both funny and painfully sad: not the only time we’ll feel this conflicting blend of moods.

The ostensible reason, Larry is told, is his lack of a college degree. Larry was a career Navy man; he then took the U-Mart position and never worried about his education. Now faced with the consequences of past decisions, he mopes a bit, resolutely tries to find a new job ... and then acknowledges the inevitable and signs up for several classes at nearby East Valley Community College.

One of these, a public speaking course, is taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), a bitterly unhappy woman who has taken refuge in too many margueritas, rather than face the need to separate herself from a loutish husband (Bryan Cranston, as Dean) who pretends to write at home each day, but instead surfs Internet porn sites. Cranston is at his whiny, sputtering, flustered best as Dean: the pluperfect weenie and all-around louse.

Somewhere along the line, Mercedes lost the inner spark that fuels great teachers; she now just goes through the motions, and sometimes not even that. If she arrives at class and sees fewer than 10 students, she immediately cancels the session, grateful for this administrative cost-saving rule.

On this particular morning, a slightly tardy Larry becomes No. 10 ... preventing Mercedes from fleeing back to her office. She resents this. Not a good start.

Having sold his gas-guzzling SUV in order to commute to school on a more economical scooter, Larry catches the eye of the irrepressible Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a coed who apparently selects total strangers as “makeover projects.” The bemused Larry can’t help being pleased by such attention, although Talia’s methods can be hilariously brutal: yanking out his shirt (“Only cops tuck in polo shirts”), throwing away his drab cell phone case, sending distracting texts during class, redecorating his living room — without being asked — in order to improve the space’s feng shui.

She also invites Larry into her posse’s “scooter gang,” which involves an amusing formal ritual with Dell (Wilmer Valderrama), Talia’s actual boyfriend: a role fraught with emotional peril, given his gal’s flirtatious nature. The Larry/Dell dynamic becomes funnier every time we see them together.

And that’s just for starters. Larry’s fellow public speaking classmates are an equal hoot, starting with clueless slacker Dibiasi (Rami Malek) and continuing through mousy Lala (Maria Canals-Barrera), excitable jock Natalie (Grace Gummer) and avid Trekkie Dave (Malcolm Barrett).

Larry also is taking Econ 1, an infamously challenging course made even more intimidating by the instructor, Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), the sort of professor who laughs — much too hard — at his own weak jokes, and cheerfully assigns a textbook that he wrote himself. In a cast laced with whimsical characters, Takei easily stands out; his constant campaign against Larry’s cell phone becomes a wonderful running gag.

But don’t make the mistake of regarding Dr. Matsutani as a completely frivolous character; everybody in this story plays an important role in Larry’s emotional resurrection.

On the home front, Larry maintains a devoted friendship with neighbors Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), who run the city’s longest uninterrupted yard sale. Lamar can afford to be a career haggler, having won a massive lottery payout that maintains his life of ease. But that hasn’t made him a soft touch: He’ll demand $100 for a simple TV tray, arguing that it’s a “retro classic.”

Although certainly present for light-hearted relief and occasionally hilarious one-liners, each of these people — Larry’s classmates, his scooter buddies, his neighbors —becomes a distinct individual, and part of the growing “extended family” that eases Larry’s transition into whatever the future will bring.

Still, this is Hanks and Roberts’ film, and they unerringly slip into the skins of their emotionally battered characters. Roberts gets considerable mileage out of the cynical, don’t-mess-with-me gaze she gives Mercedes, not to mention the pathos of that too-careful walk we associate with being a few drinks beyond acceptable behavior. Mercedes hasn’t quite surrendered, but she’s painfully close: a fact observed by her sharp-eyed friend and colleague, Frances (Pam Grier).

Roberts gets plenty of scene-stealing competition from Mbatha-Raw, who has “future movie star” written all over her joyously exuberant face. Dr. Who fans will recognize her as Tish Jones, the stalwart sister of Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones; more recently, Mbatha-Raw co-starred in J.J. Abrams’ ill-fated TV spy series, Undercovers. She makes Talia as iconic and magical as a water sprite: a sort of “fairy god-daughter” every middle-aged man should encounter, in order to salve a bruised ego.

Larry Crowne isn’t quite perfect, but it’s darn close. Dean and Mercedes’ associated drinking problem are dealt with rather superficially: not enough of an issue to diminish this film’s many other joys, but enough to suggest that the script should have been tweaked just a bit more.

In all other respects, though, this is marvelous, joyful entertainment: Just sit back, relax and watch how these superior talents do that thing they do ... and do it so well.

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