LARRY CROWNE: A Defense of Pleasant Films

LARRY CROWNE was one of my most-anticipated films of 2011. I love Tom Hanks. I love Julia Roberts. I love romantic comedies (or at least the idea of them). I’m quite fond of Hanks’ first foray into writing and directing, THAT THING YOU DO!. What could go wrong?

When the reviews started rolling in, I started getting nervous.  They seemed to be at a level of vicious usually reserved for monstrosities like TRANSFORMERS 2.  That franchise’s third installment was even rocking a higher score on Rotten Tomatoes. How was this possible?

Well, to tell you the truth, having seen LARRY CROWNE, I still have no idea. If fans of the TRANSFORMERS franchise can use a defense like, “It’s just a bit of fun; I’m there for the explosions, not the story!” then I’m going to use this one: “It’s just a bit of good-hearted, good-natured, easy-to-digest story from some actors I enjoy watching; I’m not there for explosions!”

Because that seems to be the problem most people have with LARRY CROWNE: no explosions — neither the fiery combination of elements nor the epiphany-inducing, soul-shocking sort. And being a romantic comedy which focuses neither on raunch or bathroom humor, I’ll fully admit that at times it feels a little old-fashioned. But in world filled with Bad Teachers, Hangovers and Horrible Bosses, is it really so bad to throw in a romantic comedy for for a demographic beyond the 18-29s?

(That’s not a slam on the effective raunch com, by the way. There’s a place for those, too. But their existence and popularity should not mean the extinction of films that approach comedy — and romance — in a different way.)

Let me tell you a little more about the film itself.  Larry Crowne is an everyman.  He’s worked hard most of his life, succeeded a lot and failed some, too, just like most of us.  He gets frustrated, but he doesn’t lash out.  After 20 years in the Navy, he’s learned a bit about self-control and self-discipline.  He’s really got it pretty much together, from a dealing-with-life standpoint.

And the truth is, most people do. And then sometimes we get sucker-punched.  And that’s what happens to Larry.  In a different kind of movie, this would send the protagonist into a tailspin of ennui, perhaps even inducing suicidal thoughts (my beloved ELIZABETHTOWN comes to mind).  But Larry isn’t a man going through a quarter-life crisis, and he’s not the sort to make a big deal out of a mid-life one.  In short, he’s a doer.  He gets some advice from his friends, and then he enrolls at community college so he can buffer himself against the same sucker-punch in the future.

What can be owed to Hanks’ performance, I think, or perhaps just to my own reading of it, is that there’s a tiny bit of quiet desperation in Larry. He was coasting, really — playing it safe — and he still got hit.  He’s in need of some inspiration, though he never comes right out and says it, but it’s there.  And if you look closely, you can see it: Larry is a man who is good at being happy but has forgotten how to feel joy.  This is not the sort of problem that slaps the audience in the face like an alien invasion; that does not make it less interesting.

Enter Talia (played with spunk by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), our Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who restyles, rearranges, renames and recategorizes Larry’s life.  Once again, in a different film, she would also be the woman who steals his heart.  But that’s not what Larry’s about, nor is it what LARRY CROWNE is about.  Talia is a catalyst for Larry to change, but she’s a new version of the MPDG — the platonic pal who roots for her target without spiriting herself into the core of his life.  It’s really quite refreshing, and I say this as an avid fan of the traditional MPDG.

So Talia prepares Larry for inspiration, and then in steps Ms. Mercedes Tainot by way of Julia Roberts, who desperately wants to inspire, to be appreciated, to be a source of joy.  Here is a woman who remembers joy but has yet to figure out how to be happy.

Are you still with me? Have you found something to hate?  I certainly didn’t see anything that can compete with what I’ve read about TRANSFORMERS 3 in terms of filmmaking/screenwriting failures. Personally, I’ll take a movie with heart over explosions any day of the week, and that’s what LARRY CROWNE provides.  Some may call it “bland”; I choose to call it “pleasant.”

In fact, to conclude, let me defer to Jimmy Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd for a moment:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’–she always called me Elwood–‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

Sometimes that goes for movies, too.

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8 Responses to LARRY CROWNE: A Defense of Pleasant Films

  1. Stuart says:

    As far as “Have you found something to hate?” well… yeah. But I think it just comes down to Larry Crowne being the dictionary definition of “not my bag.” I think I’ve already tweeted about how the trailers make me less interested to see this movie than any trailer I’ve ever seen. It’s like they made in in a lab as some special experiment in turning me off as hard and as fast as they could. I literally could not be less interested in Larry Crowne.

    But the liking of movies such as Larry Crowne or Transformers 3 aren’t mutually exclusive. I’ve no desire to see either, for completely different reasons. Just because twee “ho ho, he fell off his scooter and Julia Roberts did a laugh” stuff isn’t my thing, that doesn’t mean I’m pumping my fist for Michael Bay’s latest installment of shapes hitting other shapes for 2 and a half long, loud hours.

    Good article though. Horses for courses, that’s all.

    Oh, and the weird thing for me about Tom Hanks is that he comes across as hilarious, likeable and wildly personable in interviews and on talkshows, but he specialises in movies I’ll never, ever want to see.

    • But see, I have to make a distinction between “not wanting to see” or “not getting anything out of” and outright hating a film. Hating a film requires an energy I can only muster if I find it offensive in some manner. “Not my bag” is simply that — a preference for other things. “Hate” implies something else entirely in my book.

      • Stuart says:

        I do hate that kind of twee, overdone fluff if that helps. I find it artistically offensive :-p

        I might move from “no thanks” to outright hate if I actually watched it, like I have with Transformers I and II (not proud). But really, both films fulfill the need of an audience that I’m not a part of, that’s all. I’m always torn hating anything, because I try to remember (although usually forget and just rant about it anyway) that all art is subjective, and one man’s TF 3 is another’s Godfather 2 – a very stupid man, but a man nonetheless – although that kind of thinking is the death of criticism.

      • The death of criticism comes from refusing to think. Sometimes a film catches in a unique way. I was really touched by PRINCE CASPIAN, for instance, while the majority of the rest of the world found it rather forgettable. Same with Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Sometimes things just hit in a weird manner for an individual. So if someone finds that much meaning in TRANSFORMERS 3, and if they can articulate why, then that’s actually quite a triumph for the art of film criticism in my book.

  2. Stuart says:

    I should probably agree with that purely on the basis that my favourite movie of the year so far is Drive Angry.

    • Matthew Marko says:

      Drive Angry came out MONTHS ago. Go see more movies, slacker.

      • Stuart says:

        Hey, I’ve seen movies!

        Just none that had Nic Cage drinking beer of a skull while he set people on fire and shot them, while driving a car really really fast.

        Top *that*, Hollywood.

  3. Pingback: 2011: My Year in Review « Elizabethan Theatre

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