Taking a familiar ride back to school
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 1, 2011
The tale of a broke, unemployed and under-educated nebbish who transforms himself into a prince of a guy who finds his princess — with the help of a scooter-riding fairy godmother and a cache of hip, vintage threads — “Larry Crowne” is a Cinderfella story for tough times. It’s a light and breezy, recession-themed romantic comedy; “Up in the Air” without all the angst and introspection.
Tom Hanks (who also directed) plays the title character, a squeaky-clean divorced man who’s fired from his job as a salesman at a big-box store. (In this economy, someone’s got to go, and Larry doesn’t have a college degree.)
Without so much as pausing to feel sorry for himself, Larry dumps his house — he was underwater on the mortgage anyway — switches from a gas-guzzling SUV to a more sensible, if sexier, second-hand scooter, takes a part-time job as a short order cook and enrolls in college.
His first course? A speech class called “The Art of Informal Remarks.” Talk about unmarketable. At least the teacher — played by an unhappily married, and almost perpetually scowling, Julia Roberts — is hot.
Key words here: “unhappily married” and “hot.” This is, after all, a romantic comedy. You can see what’s coming, even if Larry can’t. Hanks plays his character with a slightly dazed, deer-in-the-headlights grin. His outlook is an even more upbeat variant of Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?” Larry’s own naive catchphrase — “spectacular,” pronounced “speck-tack-a-ler” — is telling.
As for Roberts’s scowling, the actress seems to have Botoxed her famous smile into submission for the first two-thirds of the film. Making Larry, and the audience, wait an hour before we see the whites of her teeth is a major miscalculation. When she and Larry finally kiss, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to. But the script (co-written by Hanks and Nia “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Vardalos) demands it.
To compensate for the foolishness of taking a class in public speaking, the script also has Larry sign up for Introductory Economics, taught by an amusingly unhinged George Takei of “Star Trek” fame.
It’s in that econ class that Larry meets the free-spirited Talia (a delightful Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Like Larry, she’s a scooter rider, and introduces him to her circle of scooter-aficionado college pals. Before you can say “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” Talia has given Larry a magical makeover, complete with new hair, new glasses, new ’tude and stylin’ clothes. Watching Hanks’s transformation from Larry Crowne to “Lance Corona” — Talia’s nickname for his new persona — is the film’s chief pleasure.
But as romantic comedies go, “Larry Crowne” is neither swooningly romantic nor howlingly funny. The film’s biggest laugh comes when Roberts’s character asks one of her students, snarkily, “Are you clairvoyant?” and he answers, “No, Steve Dibiasi.” All that’s missing is the rimshot.
The film is comfortably familiar. Like the scooter gang that’s central to the film’s plot — and Larry’s metamorphosis — “Larry Crowne” putters down the middle of the road with its helmet strapped on tight. It’s a safe, non-risk-taking ride. It gets you where it wants you to go, but with a minimum of oomph.
Contains some crude language.