Reviewed by Stephen Himes
Critics, I think, are completely missing the incisive political subtext of “Larry Crowne.” Ebert’s is a representative take, saying the movie “has no reason for existing,” echoing the consensus that it’s a “pointless” Hollywood rom-com. And sure, on the surface, this movie has no obvious ambition, other than Tom Hanks trying to make his former find—Nia Vardalos, writer/star of the Hanks-discovered and produced “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”—relevant again with a co-writing credit. Larry Crowne is just another recession victim who’s got to get his life together, like Will Ferrell in “Everything Must Go,” Ben Affleck in “The Company Men,” and all the people George Clooney fired in “Up in the Air.” You might ask, well, what are Forrest Gump’s and Greek Weddings’ take on the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?
Larry Crowne seems to be in some sense about getting rid of your shit, dropping the baggage, be it physical or spiritual, that bogs each of us down—a theme made literal with both Larry and Roberts’s Mrs. Tainot signaling forward movement by putting some stuff out front on the lawn. In trying to make Larry Crowne into a free-floating everyman, Hanks turns the film into something disconcertingly untethered, generalizing contemporary issues of downsizing and foreclosure and worries about gas mileage and accepting The New into something so blithely nondescript as to carry no real weight. If Hanks is even aware that Larry’s wallet chain is less a symbol of hip rebirth than a signal of a geezer hopelessly chasing youth, as a filmmaker he doesn’t have the teeth to reveal it.
Yes, Julia Roberts has her Will Ferrell in “Everything Must Go” moment when she piles her husband’s stuff on the lawn, and Tom Hanks has his Ben Affleck in “The Company Men” moment when he’s aghast at his boss for firing him despite how good he is at his job. But unlike other recession movies, “Larry Crowne” doesn’t channel any righteous anger. Larry, despite being divorced (and childless, for reasons that go unexplained) and jobless, doesn’t descend into alcoholism, and Julia Roberts’ hinted alcoholism is played off as a perfectly acceptable way to blow off steam. And yeah, like “The Company Men,” good people with marketable talents can’t find work and must learn how to get by, discovering how fragile their middle class existence really was.
But “Larry Crowne” isn’t angry about all this. Or, we should say, Larry Crowne isn’t angry about this. He forgets to negotiate a severance package or consider an ageism suit (and the company forgets that locking in overproducing labor at below-market value is precisely what it should do in a recession), cleans out his house full of stuff, trades in the SUV for a scooter, gets a job as a diner line cook, and heads off to community college—all in his chipper, Hanksian way.
You see, this is the political statement. Look, you could be pissed off that you got fired, despite the fact that you’re the most litter-cleaning-up-est, efficient cart-getting, men’s wear zoning former marine in the history of big box stores. You could be pissed about gas prices. You could be pissed off at the mortgage industry and that real estate agent who put you underwater on your house. You could be pissed off about having to take out a loan to get a degree that won’t give you any skills necessary to do your job, but is simply a line on a resume. You could be pissed about having to go back to your old humiliating job just to buy groceries. You could do that.
You could sit on your lawn with your stuff and pound a case of PBR.
You could be too prideful to learn carpentry with your rube brother in law.
But that would make you a jerk. And you don’t want to be a jerk, do you? You know who’s not a jerk?
Larry Crowne, that’s who. Instead of being an a-hole and getting all pissed off and descending into some self-pitying crap, Larry Crowne sells the SUV for a scooter, enjoys his new diner job because dammit he’s good at it, shows up at community college, and even throws his credit score to the wind by strategically foreclosing on his house. All with a smile on his face. That’s what Larry Crowne does, because if there’s one thing you can say about Larry Crowne, he’s not an jerk.
Larry Crowne is the corny embodiment of morning in America. He’s got the sun in his face. Larry Crowne isn’t political—he just wants good people to get the job done. He votes for Presidents who make him feel like America does—he probably voted Reagan twice, Clinton once and maybe twice, Bush in 2000, and definitely Obama. Why? Hope, that’s why. He believes in the promise of America, that if you get fired by some corporate jerk, then you work your way through school and you’ll be rewarded because that’s the American way.
You might think that being a schlubby middle aged unemployed guy falling in with a big community college scooter gang headed by Wilmer Valderrama and his improbably hot and helpful girlfriend, who comes over to feng shui your house and fix you up with new hipster clothes (don’t miss the wallet chain), is unlikely. You might think it unlikely that Mr. Sulu’s community college economics “course pack” holds all the secrets and mysteries of the post-recession economy, or that the cynical alcoholic speech teacher with the porn-surfing failed sci-fi novelist husband is “the best teacher I’ve ever had.” You might think that nothing in this movie, from the scooter gang to wacky, lottery winning neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson) holding a permanent yard sale, to the teacher who should be fired for her breaches of professional ethics, makes any sense—that it exists in some alternative universe unrecognizable to anybody besides Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos.
But you know who lives in this alternative universe? That’s right, Larry frickin’ Crowne. It’s called the American dream, people. It’s not real until we conjure it up for ourselves. At its best, America is an alternative universe. Look, we don’t know where this crazy life is going to take us, and “Larry Crowne” presents you with a choice: You can be realistic about your situation, but then you end up like Will Ferrell and close yourself onto your lawn or Ben Affleck and shut yourself in a cubicle at a job sourcing center. Or you can be like Larry Crowne: be a nice, hardworking, likable guy, put yourself out there, and see what happens. That’s what George Clooney was selling those people he axed in “Up in the Air”: You hated this job anyway, and it says here on your resume that you love cooking…so follow your passion! Make it happen! You can’t end up learning economics from Mr. Sulu, making out with Julia Roberts, or getting feng shui tips from Gug Mbatha-Raw from your recliner, can you?
Though his reasons obscure and not necessarily profound, Thomas Jefferson downplayed the notion of property ownership as an inalienable right when he penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, Larry Crowne doesn’t sit around worrying about his stuff. And “Larry Crowne” wants you to be happy, so no lectures about Wall Street greed and the collapse of the American middle class here. “Larry Crowne” isn’t here to talk about the past. This movie wants you to hop on its cinematic scooter in pursuit of happiness, fueled not by populist rage, but 150 mpgs of good ol’ American optimism. So you can hate “Larry Crowne” for being a substance-free, nonsensical Hollywood bauble that exploits real fear for vague romanticism. But hating “Larry Crowne” would make you a real Debbie Downer, and that isn’t why America is still the greatest county on God’s green Earth. “Larry Crowne” is the kind of movie Larry Crowne would love.