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Larry Crowne: A Pop Quiz of a Review

by Ethan Alter July 1, 2011 6:29 am
<i>Larry Crowne</i>: A Pop Quiz of a Review

Grab your pencils, boys and girls! Here's a multiple choice review of Tom Hanks' back-to-school comedy Larry Crowne.

1. Larry Crowne exists because...
A) Both Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts had their summer vacation plans fall through.
B) Hanks' co-writer Nia Vardalos was behind on her mortgage payments.
C) After The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Hanks wanted to remind audiences that he could make movies that were intentionally funny.
D) It probably sounded like a great, highly marketable idea when Tom and Nia thought it up.

Answer: D. Big-screen adult comedies have been enjoying a comeback in recent years, what with the rise of Judd Apatow and the whole Hangover phenomenon. Still, while those movies are decidedly adult in terms of their humor, the characters are often closer to overgrown children in their behavior. As the surprise success of Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, indicates, there's a real hunger out there amongst older moviegoers for comedies that wrestle with grown-up issues in a grown-up way. Enter Larry Crowne, which follows a middle-aged man who suddenly finds himself out of a job and decides to better himself by enrolling in his local community college. In that one-line premise, you've hit on a number of adult concerns, from unemployment and paying the bills to feelings of inadequacy and a fear of the future. A film that could touch on all these concerns in a believable way, while also making the audience laugh stands a great chance of breaking out at the box office, particularly with two of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood (at least for the over-40 set) in the lead roles.

2. Tom Hanks' character Larry Crowne is a(n)...
A) Sweet, unassuming soul that just wants to live a comfortable life.
B) Annoying, simple-minded busybody with a disturbing fixation on one girl.
C) Ivy League-affiliated symbologist with ridiculous hair.
D) Incompetent clown that deserves to be fired from his job at a Walmart like superstore.

Answer: A. From the film's trailers, you might think that Larry Crowne loses his retail gig because he's not smart enough to tell shoppers which Blue Light Specials offer the best bargains. But no, Larry is actually a model employee whose enthusiasm for his work almost borders on the absurd, considering the job he's in. The company cuts him loose on a pure technicality -- because Larry doesn't have a college degree (he joined the Navy as a cook right out of high school), he can't be promoted within the organization. And since he can't be promoted, there's no incentive to keep him around. After applying in vain to various other retail gigs, Larry realizes that going back to school may be his most direct route to another job. He doesn't harbor any illusions about making millions or blazing a new career path at this stage in his life; he just wants to acquire some of the basic skills the contemporary workplace demands.

3. Julia Roberts plays English professor Mercedes Tainot, who...
A) Is secretly running a prostitution ring out of her campus office.
B) Regularly frightens people with her shrill laugh and toothy, dinosaur-like grin.
C) Finds herself fed up with teaching due to various professional and personal problems.
D) Is the Borg Queen.

Answer: C. Based on her general contempt for her workplace, Professor Tainot could be the anonymous Professor X behind that best-selling community college tell-all In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. Whatever joy she used to get from teaching has vanished as her class sizes shrunk, her budgets were slashed and her students grew increasingly inattentive. These days, the best part of her day is when she walks through the door of her apartment and grinds herself a margarita in the blender. Alcohol also helps her overlook the sorry state of her marriage to Dean (Bryan Cranston), a former writer who is currently self-employed as a blogger, which means he sits around all day commenting on other peoples' blogs while perusing porn. On the first day of the new term, Mercedes can barely be motivated to show up to teach her lone class -- a public speaking course -- particularly when she catches sight of her undistinguished crop of pupils, including a Star Trek-obsessed geek and a loud-talking space cadet (no, Danny Pudi and Donald Glover do not reprise their Community roles here, sadly). But the person that really gets under her skin is one Mr. Larry Crowne, who shows up late for class and then proceeds to bore them all with a stiff presentation on how to cook perfect French Toast. Based on those first few sessions, she can't imagine giving him a passing grade, let alone falling in love with him.

4. Eventually Larry and Mercedes do fall for each other because...
A) It's that kind of movie.
B) Nobody else can stand them.
C) She's carrying his baby.
D) They're the only survivors of a zombie plague.

Answer: A. A better, more confident version of this same film would have dispensed with the romance between teacher and student, not just because it's ethically questionable, but also due to the fact that doesn't make a lot of emotional sense. Mercedes seems primarily drawn to Larry because he doesn't look at porn on the Internet and he likes her because she enjoys getting blotto on alcohol and making out with guys she barely knows. That's a great basis for a lasting relationship! Hanks and Roberts do share a nice, easygoing chemistry onscreen, but they register more believably as friends rather than lovers. And honestly, that would be a more interesting direction for their characters' relationship to take. Sometimes, the lead characters don't have to get together in the end. Hasn't anyone involved in the movie seen Annie Hall?

5. Which two movie stereotypes does Larry's friend Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) embody?
A) The Wide-Eyed Naïf and the Red Shirt
B) The Magical Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
C) The Tomboy and the Mean Girl
D) The Sassy Black Lady and the Nerdy Overachiever

Answer: B. Last seen headlining the short-lived J.J. Abrams-produced spy series Undercovers, British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw proves herself a lovely big-screen presence here, both in terms of her physical appearance (pardon the immature wolf-whistling, but hotcha, hotcha, hotcha!) and her winning personality. Too bad she's stuck playing a weird, unconvincing mash-up of a Magical Negro (i.e. a black character whose sole job in the film is improving the white star's life. See also: Vance, Bagger) and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (i.e. a free-spirited woman who teaches tightly-wound, emotionally damaged men how to open up. See also: Deschanel, Zooey.). Talia makes Larry her own self-improvement project, replacing much of his wardrobe and showing him the joys of aimlessly riding around town on a moped. The thing is, he doesn't really need what she's selling. Larry's chief problem isn't that he wears the wrong clothes -- it's that he has to acquire more marketable skills for his job search. Madeline gets the film's single best line when she says exasperatedly of Talia's effect on men: "Why are guys attracted to these annoying free spirits?" Sing it, sister.

6. What's the main thing that's missing from Hanks and Vardolos' script?
A) Transformers.
B) The Avengers.
C) Gory deaths.
D) Dramatic conflict.

Answer: D. Here's the basic narrative arc of the duo's screenplay: Larry is a nice guy that loses his job. Larry goes back to school to learn about public speaking, economics and how to be an even nicer guy. Larry falls in love with someone that's not so nice, but his niceness makes her want to be nice. Larry aces his final exams, gets the girl and they're both nice together. The End. As you can see, it's a perfectly...uh, nice story, but also a profoundly uninteresting one. At least give these characters some kind of an obstacle to overcome -- like an inconvenient disease or the sudden arrival of a long-lost twin sibling. Heck, even a broken nail would generate some drama.

7. Hanks' chief strength as a director is...?
A) Remembering to take the lens cap off the camera.
B) Pointing the camera in the right direction.
C) Getting out of the way and letting the actors do their thing.
D) Remembering to say "Cut."

Answer: C. Larry Crowne isn't the kind of visual tour-de-force that signals the arrival of a visionary new filmmaker, but then it's not really intended to be. Like Hanks' last directorial effort, That Thing You Do!, it's a sturdily-crafted studio-produced star-vehicle designed to showcase a group of likeable performers being likable together. Based on this movie, if Hanks wants a career as a mid-level director-for-hire, it's his for the taking.

8. Overall, Larry Crowne is best described as...?
A) Pleasant, but pointless.
B) Bold and game-changing.
C) Apocalyptic and horrifying.
D) Slippery when wet.

Answer: A. Far worse movies than Larry Crowne have found their way into multiplexes this summer -- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Cars 2 to name two such examples. In fact, this is an entirely inoffensive way to spend 90-odd minutes in an air-conditioned theater. But in its pleasantly low-key way, this is as inconsequential and instantly forgettable a movie as a bombastic blockbuster like Transformers: Dark of the Moon. And, believe it or not, that one might actually have a more believable and satisfying ending.

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