Happy Meltdown

Tom Hanks' story about a man trying to reinvent himself feels a bit too light

It's always been a scary notion, but over the past three years, the prospect of losing a job has become even scarier. With the entire financial foundation of the country shaken, and the housing market crashing like an amateur Jackass-like stunt on YouTube, losing your job since 2008 has brought with it the very real possibility of losing your house and your entire way of life.

Movies tend to reflect their times, or more often, reflect times that have just passed, and Larry Crowne joins a list of films that have asked the question, "How do people cope with this mess?" Up in the Air took the perspective of the corporate suit swinging the ax; Company Men approached it from a couple of angles, primarily fixed on those working through unemployment; and here is Larry Crowne, finding a sweet, nougaty center in the economic downtown.

Crowne is dumped by the department store that he has called home since retiring from the Navy. Without an education, they tell him, there's no chance for Crowne to advance. So in a time of penny-pinching, he's expendable. He decides, in his early 50s, to go to community college.

Tom Hanks produced, directed and co-wrote this film in which he stars, so it's no surprise that the title character and the general feeling is exceedingly positive and optimistic—Hanks is among the most likable actors of his generation and probably in cinema history. Although it might at first seem odd for a man whose films have grossed a couple billion dollars, and who has a couple of Oscars, to take on a story about a man down on his professional luck, Hanks is a bit on the wane himself.

Hanks, while obviously not close to the soup kitchen, is no longer the box-office draw he used to be, and he's being passed up for meatier mainstream roles in favor of younger actors. It isn't hard to see why he is drawn to a character forced to reinvent himself. Perhaps a reinvention effort deserves credit for Hanks' only directorial effort to hit theaters since That Thing You Do! in the mid-1990s.

Crowne is dragged into the 21st century by a feisty fellow student named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who rides around town with a scooter gang and has a habit of changing peoples' names to monikers which she thinks are more befitting of their personalities. Larry Crowne, for example, becomes Lance Corona. Talia also gives Larry's house a touch of feng shui and his clothes a sweeping update.

The action on campus bounces between two classes: an introductory economics course taught by a guy going through the motions (George Takei), and a public-speaking class taught by Mercy Tainot (Julia Roberts). Takei's stuff gets some laughs but isn't terribly impactful. The heart of the story is, rather predictably, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Both of them have good onscreen chemistry generally, and specifically have improved their relations from Charlie Wilson's War. Of course, both were saddled with accents they couldn't entirely command in that film, so perhaps they were simply uncomfortable all the way around.

Hanks knows what he's doing as a filmmaker, even with limited experience behind the camera and on the page. And he knows what he's selling here: He believes audience members will at least know someone going through what Larry Crowne is going through, and he believes that people enjoy Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Therefore, he paints these characters in ways that viewers might be more inclined to root for them.

Within the framework of people trying to cope after the rug has been swiftly pulled out from under their lives, Hanks gets to work connecting some pretty easy dots. Realizing he will probably be dealing with an older-than-average audience, Hanks takes a little time to wade into the housing crisis. He hitches Mercy to a sci-fi writer and blogger (Bryan Cranston) who is, amazingly enough, not content to be married to a woman who looks like Julia Roberts. And he plays up the generational differences between Larry and traditional college students. Overall, the results are occasionally humorous, but not incredibly funny—although these moments do lead to a little bit of insight. Perhaps that insight should have been the more specific direction, because with Hanks and Roberts and the broad subject matter, there is room to make a weightier version of the story.

But societal critique is not really what Hanks is about. He's never had an ax to grind, so why start now? Therefore, wishing for something like that, something a little more like Up in the Air, would be missing his point.

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