Review: Tom Hanks delivers lovely look at late life lessons in ‘Larry Crowne’

I’m fairly sure when you look up the word “amiable” in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Tom Hanks next to it.

That’s been the big secret to his enduring appeal, but it also works against him at times.  Hanks has never been a guy to embrace edge or cynicism onscreen, and we live in an age where those things are valued.  His work as an actor has always been distinguished by a certain approachability, an open quality that is best exemplified by the ongoing popularity of his work in “Forrest Gump.”  That role could easily have been grating or insulting, but even for someone like me who doesn’t really like the film, it’s obvious that the reason it connected with people is because of Hanks.  He made Forrest into an almost blinding force of decency.

As a writer/director, you can see that even more clearly.  His first film, “That Thing You Do,” is a deeply charming ode to that moment in life where you figure out what it is you want to contribute to the world and you start making choices about how you’re going to do that.  There’s a scene in that movie that I consider pretty much perfect, about as good as filmmaking can be at communicating an experience.  It’s when the kids first hear their song playing on the radio, and they all rush to be together so they can hear it, and the excitement just keeps bubbling up out of them as they realize that people are listening to their work, that something they made is actually out there now.  I remember the night Scott Swan and I got our first professional reviews for a stage-production here in Los Angeles.  We knew that Variety and the LA Times and Dramalogue were all going to publish their reviews the same day, so we started driving around in the middle of the night, looking for whatever newsstand would get their deliveries first.  Finally, we found one at Ventura and Van Nuys that had the truck parked at the curb, still unloading the various papers and magazines, and as we read each positive review, we started wigging out, amazed that people had not only seen our work but enjoyed it.  That feeling was perfectly captured by the scene in “That Thing You Do,” and it convinced me that Hanks isn’t just an actor playing director.  He can communicate real emotion, and he’s capable of creating characters and moments that matter.

With “Larry Crowne,” Hanks is the co-writer, having worked with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” author Nia Vardalos on a few drafts.  Even so, his authorial stamp is very clear on this one as well.  Hanks seems to be a fan of the small-scale epiphany, characters experiencing moments that seem small from the outside, but that are everything to the people living them.  That seems appropriate considering the subject matter this time.  I can see why some people might be offended at first by the notion of big successful movie stars making a film about the economic downturn, and there’s certainly room for that sort of film to feel phony.  I had a real problem with “The Company Men” last year, and I think it was the hyper-inflated sense of false drama.  When we’re living through an era like the one we’re in now, you don’t need to pump up the drama or introduce false villains.  It’s hard enough just getting out of bed and making it through each day, and “Larry Crowne” is interested in that struggle and what it takes to make it through times like this.

At the start of the film, Larry Crowne works at U-Mart, the job where he’s settled after 20 years of service to the Navy.  He’s happy just being a good employee, keeping the store nice, taking pride in his work.  And right away, Larry stands apart because of that basic attitude.  I know when I first started working retail jobs, my father taught me to take pride in each job, to treat every place of employment like the most important that I would ever have, and I went out of my way to do my best even when working at a theater or a bookstore or a video store.  These days, if someone working retail manages to contain their disgust enough to avoid spitting on me before I leave a store, I consider it a moral victory.  Crowne is a nice embodiment of a work ethic that seems to be vanishing, and so it comes as a kick in the gut when U-Mart fires him under questionable circumstances.  He finds himself adrift, unable to find work because he has no high school diploma, and very quickly, things start to snowball, particularly with his mortgage payments.  It’s not until he has a conversation with his next-door neighbors, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), that he gets the idea to go back to community college to try to get the education that he skipped out on when he was younger.

And that’s pretty much it.  Yes, his public speaking teacher ends up being Julia Roberts, and there is indeed a simple little love story between them, but that’s just a small part of what the film is about, and not the main point of the thing.  Instead, this is more about the way we have to start reinventing our lives.  As old systems collapse or stand revealed as ineffective, how do we pick up and move forward?  Do you just keep playing the same game with the same stacked deck, or do you reshuffle and demand that the game be played on your terms?  One of the reasons Lamar and B’Ellla make good sounding boards for Larry is because they’ve opted out and done things their own way.  B’Ella buys and trades things on EBay while Lamar runs a daily garage sale for all the things B’Ella buys.  They spend their days together, and they’ve managed to make a life for themselves.  It’s never something that Hanks hammers home thematically, but it’s there.  And the quiet way he makes that point is pretty much the way he handles everything in the film.  This is a very gentle movie, and as such, especially in the summer, it may feel almost too modest for some viewers if they’re in the mood for shit blowing up and movie stars being movie stars.

Both Hanks and Roberts play to their strengths here, and as much as that means turning up the amiable for Hanks, it means not even trying to be sweet for Roberts.  Her best work often happens when she drops the “America’s Sweetheart” crap and plays someone with some rough edges, someone who is prickly and even difficult.  I think Roberts has spent much of her career shoe-horned into roles that don’t quite suit her, and she’s made a nice living for herself doing it.  But the real Roberts seems to be impatient with stupidity or banality, unwilling to dress things up for the feelings of others, and quick to emotion, good or bad.  I prefer the real Roberts, and in “Larry Crowne,” that seems to be what we get.  She’s not quite Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher,” but she’s not the noble do-gooder from “Mona Lisa’s Smile,” either.  She’s someone who has ended up in a marriage she doesn’t want, working at a job she’s good at but that no longer challenges her, and she, like Larry, is just struggling to make it through each individual day.  These are people who have reached a point in life where change isn’t supposed to happen, or at least that’s what we were told while we were growing up.  Isn’t that the goal?  You grow up, you get a job, you get married, you settle down, and then the rest of your life just… happens… right?  Only, if you’re Larry Crowne, maybe that marriage does’t work out, and maybe that house you bought suddenly isn’t worth what you’ve already poured into it and maybe that job you were happy with disappears.  And if you’re Mercedes Tainot, maybe that writer you’re married to is really just a lazy dude with an Internet porn problem, and maybe that job you’ve got has turned into a dead end, and maybe you’re suddenly aware that you’re drinking too much and you’re not laughing anymore.  These are the small things that add up in our real lives, and while they aren’t the typical stuff of drama considering the way Hollywood always cranks things up, they strike me as authentically observed here.

If “Larry Crowne” was a $3 million indie film playing the festival circuit, or if it was a small foreign-language title, I have a feeling we’d see a very different response to the film, and maybe it does feel a little bit unbalanced to see two of the biggest movie stars on the planet in these roles, but I’d rather see them play material like this than constantly have to chase “event movies.”  Hanks surrounds these two characters with a rich and funny supporting cast including Wilmer Valderrama, Pam Grier, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Rami Malek, George Takei, Grace Gummer, Rob Riggle, Holmes Osborne and more.  No one runs away with the movie, but almost everyone gets a moment or two to shine.  Mbatha-Raw emerges here as a wildly appealing onscreen presence, playing Talia, a girl who meets Larry on campus and who treats him like a fixer-upper, helping him refocus himself, and I like that there’s never a moment in the movie where it looks like she and Hanks are supposed to be a romantic couple.  This isn’t a movie about a romantic triangle, and it doesn’t use cheap misunderstandings to pump things up.  Instead, it’s more about the way we often meet the people we need to meet at certain stages in our lives, and the way they help us get to whatever it is that’s next.

I don’t know how “Larry Crowne” is going to do this summer, but I am surprised at the venom some people seem to have mustered towards it.  I found it engaging, constantly warm and funny, and very direct in its ambitions.  If you want a break from the barrage of spectacle that crams out theater screens every year at this time, “Larry Crowne” represents a lovely alternative, and I hope people give it a chance.  I’d hate to see Hanks wait another fifteen years to direct again.

“Larry Crowne” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.