Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Larry Crowne" is Flawed, But Likable

Last summer, when I saw trailers of the Tom Hanks-written and directed film Larry Crowne, I had absolutely no interest in seeing it. The film looked lame, which was a shame, because Tom Hanks has been my favourite actor since 1985 (he's been eclipsed in recent years, though, to George Clooney, who represents the ultimate in coolness). From the trailer, Larry Crowne looked like it aspired to be a comedy, but I didn't find any of the sight gags to be especially funny (the one with Tom Hanks in his underwear with a young lady telling him to put his pants back on while her boyfriend stares at him with glaring eyes; Julia Roberts relenting about riding his scooter with the caveat that she would not "wear that bucket on my head" only to look miserable when she does exactly that). I had no intention of watching this movie.

A friend of mine saw it with his girlfriend in theaters and said that I needed to see it because he thought I would relate to Tom Hanks character. As a young man, I was flattered if anyone compared me to Tom Hanks. He was my favourite actor and seemed like an all around nice guy (and I did enjoy his comedies as a teenager). It used to be the case that I would see a Tom Hanks movie in theaters, no question. But sometime in the late 1990s, I became more hesitant. I still have not seen The Green Mile nor The Ladykillers. I did see Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, which were merely okay. To me, his heyday as an actor goes from Big in 1988 to Saving Private Ryan in 1998. I was glad to see him in The Da Vinci Code, but he hasn't really made a great film like Forrest Gump since...well, since Forrest Gump!

When I saw the credits of Larry Crowne, it appeared like a vanity project. He writes it (actually, co-writes it with Nia Vardalos, who is good friends with his wife Rita Wilson, and found success a decade ago with that overrated comedy hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding), produces it, directs it, and stars in it. This is his second directing duties. The first one was the forgettable That Thing You Do! from the mid-1990s. I thought even the name was strange. Was he trying to allude to that other film of his with the character name as the title? I personally think its lazy of a writer to title a film or novel after a character in the novel (usually, the protagonist). Case in point: J. Edgar? Boring! So, is Larry Crowne the new Forrest Gump? Hardly.

This film does have plenty of flaws. From the premise to the character played by Julia Roberts to the strange relationship with the much younger college student he meets who sees him as her personal improvement project to the marriage life of Julia Roberts' character to the college student's cool-yet-jealous boyfriend to the preposterous idea that there is actually a gang of too-cool-for-you Scooter riders who welcome Larry Crown into the group. And yet, despite all of these flaws (and then some), I found the movie to be quite likable, and yes...I could even relate to parts of it as my friend predicted.

Here are the surprises that charmed me about the film:

Actually, before I get to that, let me just say that I can actually see this film becoming one of the recommended movies to see at the employment office. When I was unemployed in the fall of 2010 and taking workshops offered by the Worksource Oregon, in one session about how to keep one's morale during the job search phase, the instructor showed a clip from a Tom Hanks film, Castaway. It was a lengthy scene, where Hanks' character finds innovative ways to use items in the Fed-Ex boxes that he failed to deliver because his plane crashed in the Pacific somewhere and he ended up on a deserted island. The point of the clip was to inspire us job seekers not to give up. To find creative ways to keep our spirit going until we have our own triumphal, chest-beating moment ("I created fire!" scene). After the clip, the instructor recommended that we watch the entire film if we could. I had seen it in theaters a decade ago and I didn't like it very much. Hopefully, the instructor has seen Larry Crowne, so she can show clips from this movie and recommend job seekers to watch this movie. Its much better than Castaway.

Here's the ridiculous premise: Larry Crowne is a retired veteran of the U.S. Navy who works at a Walmart-type discount mega-store of ultra-cheap goods. We see scenes of him being cheerful in all of his job duties, whether it is stocking shelves, gathering stray shopping carts in the parking lot, retrieving big boxes, hanging clothes on racks, etc. He seems to love his job (a viewer can forgive themselves if they think Larry Crowne is Forrest Gump's twin brother), like he has no ambition in life other than to be the low wage slave with co-workers young enough to be his children. A garbled intercom message calls him back to the breakroom in the warehouse. He thinks management are going to name him as the employee of the month for the 10th time. Instead, they give him a reality check. He's fired because he does not have a college degree. By some strange logic that probably only makes sense in corporate America, the decision to cut him loose has to do with his inability to be promoted into management positions because he lacks a degree, so they can't have him around if he's unable to move up in the organization.

He doesn't take the job loss with the kind of fury that can be seen in George Clooney's excellent film about downsizing (Up In The Air). He has a kind of resigned acceptance. However, I felt that this part was true for a certain personality type. When I lost my job, I was stunned by the news at first, but it did not take long for me to be happy about it, since it was the worst place I've ever worked and I was freed from my misery. After a short analysis of what he might do, Crowne decides to go back to school, so he enrolls in a community college, taking a writing class, an economics class, and a public speaking class.

George Takei ("Sulu" in the Original Star Trek series and films) had an excellent extended cameo role as the Econ professor with a dry sense of humour. I laughed my ass off during his scenes because he is so hilarious. Man, I wish I had an Econ professor like Sulu!!! I might've gotten a B instead of a D! He makes jokes with typical deadpan humour, and he's not above confiscating a student's cell phones during class.

Julia Roberts plays the public speaking instructor, who hates teaching and appears pleased when only 9 students show up on the first day of class. She proudly announces that the law requires a minimum of 10 students per class, otherwise its cancelled because it's not considered cost effective. In walks Larry Crowne to ruin her life. So, the class begins.

Roberts pretty much "phones it in". I just didn't see any real possibility that Crowne and the teacher would end up together. Roberts' community college instructor is married to a guy who blurted out in an argument that he looks at porn because the women have something his wife does not: breasts. I guess a remark like that is meant to make him look like an asshole, but throughout the film, Roberts just seems miscast. I got the sense that Tom Hanks asked Roberts to play in his movie, since they apparently got along well enough in Charlie Wilson's War. However, Roberts was great in that role as a Southern Republican woman who enlists a Congressman to support the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the USSR in the 1980s.

Some of the speeches given in class are hilarious. Crowne gets a make-over by his much younger female pal, including a feng shui rearrangement of his house. He takes a part-time job as a cook, which is what he was in the Navy. Now, let me tell you something about Navy cooks. When I was in the Navy, I heard that people who scored within a certain range (at the lower end of the scale) on the AFQT (Armed Forces Quotient Test, which is a pretty accurate skills assessment test that all applicants for the military must take) were given the job specialty rating of "Mess Specialist." They weren't the smartest guys in the Navy and its not a glamorous job. Its understandable that Crowne doesn't want to be a chef at a restaurant when a college dean recommends the hospitality industry as a course of study.

As I watched the film, I found myself smiling a lot and even laughing out loud at a few scenes (especially any scene with Sulu as Econ professor). The thought also occurred to me that this film came out last summer, which was my 20th anniversary of entering the Navy. Its like my favourite actor was gifting me a movie to answer a "what if?" question I sometimes indulge too much in. There have been times in the past few years that I wondered how different my life would have been had I made the Navy a career instead of getting out in 1996. My goals to accomplish were: college degree, career, marriage, family, and published novel...ALL BEFORE the 20th anniversary date of my Navy enlistment. I only accomplished one of those goals. Had I made the Navy a career, I would have been much better off financially. In fact, my retired salary would be the same as my current salary, and retirement is half of what you made in your final year in the military (though I heard that its not that much now). Imagine making my current salary without having to work for it! I could attend school full time on a salary and use my GI Bill and even get a part-time job.

However, I would've been a student among people young enough to be my children if I had them as young as my father did. I would not want to be a full time student now. It was hard enough being a student in the late 1990s, when I was 5-8 years older than the other students. I don't really think much about the what if aspect, because when I went to college, I meet people I would not have met otherwise and I'm so grateful for that. Though I haven't found career success, marriage, and publication as I had dreamed my post-Navy life would entail, I do have friends that I value and life experience, with only a few regrets (I know people recommend not having regrets and I never had them before, until I made three costly choices: leaving D.C. in 2000, accepting the first job offer in Portland in 2006, and not going for a walk on Samish Island when Christine asked me to).

Larry Crowne appears to be a character who doesn't seem to worry about status much. He takes life as it comes. Everything is an experience, with little to get upset about. You just live with no expectations. The irony is that I probably enjoyed this film more because I had LOW expectations for this movie. I don't feel so bad that my life seems to not have amounted to much in the years since my White House internship (the high point of my life thus far). So, I agree with my friend. Larry Crowne does seem partially like me, in that I may be a little to laid back / zen in my approach to a career and to life's disappointments. Maybe its time I up the ante on my life. I don't want my 40s to look like my 30s (the worst decade of my life). I want a repeat of my 20s, and a lot of that had to do with my natural optimism and enthusiasm for being free from the cliquish culture of high school and the stunted growth of being thought of as my brother's twin.

So, despite its obvious flaws, Larry Crowne is a likable film with a positive underlying message. Live life being open to all that comes your way. Its the only way to navigate these uncertain times.

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