Monday, July 11, 2011


Lately I feel like I've been watching more and more romantic comedies than usual, whether released in 2011 or not. It wasn't until this year, with my increased focus on the blog, that seeking more varied styles of film has been among my goals, especially when it comes to my charts for worst films of the year and Hello Mr. Anderson's inaugural Awards post, which will be held at the end of every year that this blog remains active. I'm still fine-tuning the details, but I should have plenty of time to work those out by the time it rolls around. Stepping back to the topic of romantic comedies, however; much of the time I'm not seeing such a film because I want to, but because it exists. I was completely unaware of When Harry Met Sally's awesomeness until The Opinioness brought it to my attention. You've Got Mail and A Good Year were recently introduced to me (and subsequently enjoyed) by my friend Anne. I even saw this years' No Strings Attached and will see Friends with Benefits and Crazy Stupid Love, films I might have skipped in years past, and I've rarely looked forward to these or ANY RomCom in the past. That's what makes Larry Crowne so different. When trailers first appeared for the latest film starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, a strange thing occurred; I began to look forward to it. Despite my assertions that films of the like are often derivative, fantastical and illogical, in the end that doesn't necessarily make for a bad film, especially when the main goal of the theater is to transport the viewer to somewhere they've never before been. The trailers for Larry Crowne didn't convey any sense of a different direction, but a sincere charm is what roped me in, guaranteeing that it would be part of my viewing schedule this summer.

Hello, my name is Tom, and I'm addicted to being in romantic comedies
Larry Crowne (Hanks) is a veteran retail store employee who we meet the day he is fired from his job at the big-box store U-Mart ("Shop Smart. Shop U-Mart"). U-Mart has released the former Navy cook because of a lack of formal college education, which comes at a terrible time as Larry is still recovering from his failed marriage and was already struggling to repay the mortgage on his house. Assisted by his friends and neighbors, Larry enrolls in college attempting to get himself back on track. Meanwhile, Mercedes Tainot (Roberts) is a college professor with an emotionally-absent husband (Bryan Cranston) and uncertainty that she makes any difference in the lives of the students who attend her classes. More and more she goes into work with a sense of dread, and doesn't look forward to a single one of her classes. As the two struggle to redefine themselves, a chance student-teacher relationship begins to assist both of their tribulations, and lead them to happiness.

Where Hanks would be if he wasn't the least bit charming
Once again, we have a situation in which Hanks stars in a film that is almost indistinct from his prior work. One of the few differences is that Hanks also expands his workload, not only completing his second feature film as a director (the first being 1996's That Thing You Do), but also co-writing the screenplay with Nia Vlardos (whose Big Fat Greek Wedding was perhaps overrated but still a lot of fun). As Hanks has the experience in romantic comedies to know exactly how to create standard fare, it's perhaps surprising that the final product exceeds any of my early expectations. As a storyteller, he shows us that he knows how to properly pace his tale, not rushing a single thing in order to give the audience instant gratification. The eventual connection of Larry and Mercedes is slow and not always moving forward, and never does the budding romance feel stiff or unlikely. Sometimes it even moves BACKWARD, seriously forcing the audience to consider that perhaps things will not turn out the way they had expected.

About as miserable a look as Roberts is likely to pull off
Once again, this RomCom is an actor's film, its actual quality paling in comparison to the level of charm the characters manage to exude. Hanks of course is king of the hill when it comes to this quality, especially important as he enters his elder years. Proving that talent is indeed worth more than good looks, Hanks succeeds in a film genre where younger, more chiseled actors are more valued in this day and age. Crowne is an immediately likable, socially-awkward man, with his only criticism being how Mercedes can so slowly become infatuated with him. This might have been Tom Hanks underestimating Tom Hanks, but since it works for the story this is hardly major folly. Roberts is an actress who has perhaps coasted on the success of her hits. Certainly not without talent, Julia Roberts has had some monumental roles in her career (Erin Brockovich, Closer), but she uses the rest of her time to make forgettable films such as last year's Eat Pray Love. The role of Mercedes Tainot is much closer to the latter than the former, but - like Hanks - she has the experience to pull it off with charm and grace. Secondary characters are once again not as original as they could be, but for the most part they do manage to flesh out the story outside of the main character plot-line. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the best of the bunch as Talia, a young college student who befriends Larry and helps him become more "cool", by helping him connect with others, redecorating his house and essentially giving him a complete makeover. She, more than perhaps Mercedes, is the reason for Larry's transformation over the course of the film, and while her character is never fully realized, that's more fault of the script than the performance.Other good performances include Cedric the Entertainer as Larry's wealthy self-employed neighbor Lamar,  and Wilmer Valderrama as Dell, Talia's protective boyfriend. The cast isn't universally well-used, however, as talented actors Bryan Cranston and Taraji P. Henson do their best but are ultimately undervalued in the film. This is made up to a degree by Larry's fellow classmates, who are personalized and adorable that you can't help but like them, and George Takei, who succeeds in being for film in 2011 what Betty White was in 2010.

Somehow not UFC's next championship match
Larry Crowne touches on several topics relevant to today's world, including unemployment, financial difficulties and the importance of obtaining a higher education. These are very important and help move the story forward, but unfortunately they don't have as much impact as Hanks might have intended. Sure, we see Larry scrounging, selling off his possessions and even investing in a motor scooter to save on gas money, but the negative aspects of becoming suddenly jobless feel less tragic than they should here. This topic was much better realized in the George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air, and every film aiming for that message essentially feels redundant of that under-appreciated title. How long will it be before Hollywood abandons these motivations is unknown, though it will likely be this way until an end to the current economic recession has been confirmed.

How these two could muster a mere $13 million opening weekend?
The best thing about this particular romantic comedy is that the actual romance takes a back seat to the surprisingly strong character development. The plot isn't solely about getting these two characters together, though that is part of it. The point of the story is for these two characters to get to a place where they are as happy with their lives. Even if they don't end up together (though really, is there any doubt?), that isn't the important part. That's what Larry Crowne does so well, making the characters' fates and happiness  more important than their Facebook relationship status. It does fall into some serious romantic comedy cliches, but Larry Crowne is far better than most reviewers would have you believe, and that negative publicity has already made for a poor box office opening for either of its major stars. Maybe people are waiting for this one to come out on DVD, and maybe you should do that too. I however loved the film from beginning to end, and wouldn't suggest for a second that it was not worth watching if you're even remotely into the entire romantic comedy experience.

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