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‘Larry Crowne’ offers dose of reality with a smile

Hanks vehicle touches on economic struggles, but with humor and an optimistic spirit

POSTED: June 30, 2011 12:30 a.m.
Bruce Talamon/AP Photo/Universal Pictures

Julia Roberts, left, and Tom Hanks are shown in a scene from "Larry Crowne."

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Hollywood's "Diversity in Summer" strategy continues with the release of "Larry Crowne," a romantic dramedy about middle-aged characters, which should provide very welcome counterprogramming to this week's other big release, the obnoxious, idiotic "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

When we meet Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), he is a floor manager in a big box retail store. He loves his job, does it well, and is popular with the other employees. But immediately after the credit sequence, some corporate jerks (they earn that moniker) cold-heartedly fire Larry because he has never attended college.

The reason for Larry's dismissal is extremely flimsy. The suits say company policy is to not limit the potential of its employees, and since Larry has risen as high as he can without any college education, they have to let him go. You'll find fewer people more anti-corporation than me, but even I think this device is a bit implausible.

Larry is really fired for two reasons. One, because this movie wants to sympathize with all the real folks who have been downsized for inhumane causes, and two, because the entire story depends on Larry going to college.

Which he does, to a nearby community college.

Now a nontraditional student, Larry quickly befriends a handful of younger students. A flirty, free-spirited girl named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) takes Larry under her wing, so to speak, rearranging his house and overhauling his wardrobe.

Larry takes a speech class taught by Mrs. Tainot (Julia Roberts), who has lost all passion for both teaching and her husband (Bryan Cranston), who blogs and, ahem, surfs the Web all day.

Larry and Mrs. Tainot (no one calls her by her first name, Mercedes) come from very different backgrounds, but they are both at turning points.

Larry is divorced, broke and can't find a new job, so he turns to education as a means of starting over (hooray for small colleges and nontraditional students!). Mrs. Tainot also needs to renovate her life, she just realizes it a bit later than Larry.

Will these two rebuild their lives? Will they help each other do that?

Hanks co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame. It's a return to worthwhile storytelling for Vardalos and to the director's chair for Hanks. His other feature, the infinitely enjoyable "That Thing You Do!" is now 15 years old.

Hanks should direct more movies, if for no other reason than his supporting players seem to love working with him.

Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson play Larry's lovable next-door neighbors. Holmes Osbourne and Pam Grier both give nice turns in small but endearing roles. Hanks' wife Rita Wilson hits an appropriately apathetic and artificial tone as a loan manager, and Wilmer Valderrama is hilarious as Talia's boyfriend, who fends off jealousy as he repeatedly catches Talia and Larry in what seem like compromising positions.

"Larry Crowne" earns big points for acknowledging the hardships that so many people have endured the past few years. "Up in the Air," "Company Men" and "Everything Must Go" are about the only other Hollywood movies to do that.

Some will inevitably criticize the movie, however, for not delving deeper into working class adversity. Larry has to completely start over financially and personally, yes, but it all comes incredibly easily.

This superficial treatment was clearly by design. "Larry Crowne" is rooted in working-class reality but prefers to give us a humorous pick-me-up rather than wallow in our tears. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm still waiting for an American movie that does seem to understand the times we live in.

Hollywood has, ironically and shamefully, abandoned working-class realities. They've forgotten what made timeless movies like "It Happened One Night" work so well: recognize where your audience is at the moment, then let them escape for a couple of hours by giving them some laughs and a romance.

Thank goodness at least a few people in La La Land still understand that.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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