The Summer’s Most Grownup Movie is … Well … Likeable

Rotten Tomatoes, the online movie review aggregator, has had 20 million unique visitors. If you were recently one of them, you might have looked up the movie Larry Crowne. And, you might have chosen not to see it. A full 65 percent of the 176 featured critics gave it a thumbs down, or in the site’s own metrics a “rotten tomato.” This puts me in the minority.

I liked Larry Crowne.

C’mon, what’s not to like? Tom Hanks? Likeable. Julia Roberts? Likeable. A sweet romance about a couple of middle-aged misfits set against today’s uncertain economy? Likeable, likeable, likeable.

Tom Hanks, who not only stars as Larry but also directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay, is often compared to Jimmy Stewart or Spencer Tracy, charismatic everymen from Hollywood’s golden age. And Larry Crowne feels like a throwback to that kinder, gentler cinematic era. So we get an earnest likeable (there’s that word again) hero, some passing social commentary, an ensemble cast of colorful characters, a couple that overcomes some (albeit very minor) obstacles and falls in love. Aw, shucks.

We first meet Larry Crowne on the job at big box retailer UMart. He loves his customers, he loves his company, he practically sings “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah” as he straightens racks and picks up litter in the parking lot. When he hears his name over the store’s speakers, he assumes that he’s been chosen “Employee of the Month” again. But no, alas, he is about to be terminated. You see, UMart is not the kind of company that would keep employees from having opportunities for advancement. Because Larry didn’t go to college (he served 20 years in the Navy), he can’t rise up any further at UMart. So, rather than keep him in a dead end job, they’re going to let him go.

It’s an interesting logic, HR doublethink worthy of George Orwell that may sound sadly familiar to some people today. Larry’s response is subtle. Tom Hanks allowed one eye to twitch suddenly as if his character had received a blow. After that, he accepts his fate and the dismissal is a fait accompli.

With no job, no prospects and a great big mortgage, Larry has to reinvent himself. Like many movie characters before him, he heads to college. But, this isn’t one of those movies that focus on the foibles of an unlikely freshman (Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School; Anna Faris in House Bunny or even Goofy in An Extremely Goofy Movie). Larry ends up at his local community college where there are students of every age, color, size and shape. He’s advised to take economics, writing and … a course called The Art of Informal Remarks. “It will change your life,” promises the dean of students.

And indeed it does.

Enter Julia Roberts. As Mercedes Tainot, she’s a disillusioned, borderline alcoholic speech teacher with a bombastic husband who is addicted to online porn. He defends himself by asserting, “I’m a guy being a guy.” Meanwhile, Mercedes pours herself another margarita. Despite the booze and the boor, Julia Roberts, being Julia Roberts, still looks great and we know she can do better. And this being the kind of likeable movie it is, we know she will not only end up with Larry but that he will make her forget her troubles and her zillion-watt smile will light up the screen.

And again, indeed it does.

Larry Crowne is terrifically predictable. Running just over an hour and a half, it isn’t too long, and this is a good thing because, let’s face it, nothing really happens. There’s a story with a beginning, a middle and a (happy) end, but there’s no real arc; Larry doesn’t hit many speed bumps. Tom Hanks co-wrote the movie with Nia Vardalos and in this way it’s much like her hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The characters are quirky and engaging, but you’re just along for the wild ride. You don’t really become emotionally invested with the outcome because you know from square one that all will work out in the end.

In addition to our winsome co-stars, the cast includes several larger-than-life characters portrayed with good humor by some fine actors, all of whom seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Larry’s neighbors and perpetual yard sale proprietors are played by Cedric the Entertainer and the equally entertaining Tarji P. Henson. Larry’s speech classmates include space cadet Rami Malek, jock Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter) and erudite Trekkie Malcolm Barrett. Larry’s scooter gang (really) is led by flirtatious Gugu Mbatha-Raw and tough gang leader Wilmer Valderra. There are standout performances by Pam Grier and Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson. And as economics professor Dr. Matsutani, Star Trek’s George Takei chews up every scene he’s in.

You really get the sense that Tom Hanks called all his friends and said: “Hey gang! Let’s make a movie! We’ll have a gosh darn good time!”

And the good mood is infectious. Even though you realize that Larry Crowne is pretty light fare, you really do find yourself smiling as you watch it.

This leads me to wonder …

Does a movie have to be great to make it a good way to spend a summer afternoon?

Larry Crowne is not a great movie. There’s no deep message; it deals only briefly and superficially with unemployment. The characters are fun but not complex. There are no moments of high drama, no inspired speeches. Problems are quickly and neatly resolved.

But the pictures are pretty, the story is sweet and it’s told by a top-notch team of Hollywood pros. In a season when half the screens at the local multiplex are showing the final Harry Potter and the rest are divided up between Captain America, Green Lantern and Transformers 3D, I think you could do worse than to grab yourself a bucket of popcorn, sit back and enjoy Larry Crowne for exactly what it is. A very likeable movie.





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