Larry Crowne

July 23, 2011
Larry Crowne

In Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks portrayed an inspirational simpleton who captured the imagination of the world. In Larry Crowne, he has given us another inspirational figure: the little man, the average Joe, who stands up against a brutal, debased system, and finds his bliss. The difference this time around is that Larry Crowne has been roundly abused by the Amercan critics and greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm by the general public.

Perhaps the US critics should watch more Australian films. After sitting through a succession of dark, violent and depressing homegrown efforts, Hanks’s feel-good fable of contemporary America was a pleasure. I was tempted to write: “a guilty pleasure”, because there is no denying that Larry Crowne is sentimental and formulaic. This kind of romantic comedy has the same crushing inevitability as tragedy – no matter how many problems the hero encounters, one knows that everything will turn out for the best.

Is this very different from the classic Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and 40s? During the Great Depression and the Second World War, movies provided relief from the miseries of everyday life. This took the form of glamorous fantasies, escapist costume dramas, and – most notably in the films of Frank Capra – the triumph of the lone, decent man over the system.

We know from experience that such triumphs are as unlikely as winning the lottery. Marxists would argue that these stories acclimatise us to social injustice, because they suggest that a clever, determined individual can overcome any odds.

In this scenario wishful thinking is very close to deliberate ideological obfuscation, but it’s debatable as to whether being alert to such things lessens our enjoyment. Jimmy Stewart is just as marvellous as Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith, while Katharine Hepburn is not diminished by the fact that the assertive, independent women she played were always relegated to the kitchen or the nursery by the time the credits rolled.

Larry Crowne needs to seen in a similar vein: it is a modern morality tale for a nation still bleeding from the global financial crisis; suffering rising unemployment, record debt levels, bank failures and mortgage foreclosures. The film begins with Larry going through his paces as a gung-ho employee of U-Mart, a massive chain store. When he is sacked because he doesn’t have a college degree, and therefore not eligible for in-house advancement, we feel the ludicrous, unfair nature of the ‘downsizing’ process that has engulfed so many American workers.

Larry is a divorcee with a huge mortgage who can’t afford to lose his job. After many failed attempts find work his solution is to go to community college and get himself an education. There he studies economics with the bizarre Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), and public speaking with the bitter, jaded Ms. Tainot (Julia Roberts). He makes new friends, notably Talia (the wonderfully named Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young coffee-coloured beauty who decides to play Henry Higgins to his Eliza Dolittle: introducing him into her scooter club, changing his wardrobe and his hairstyle.

This is pretty syrupy, but Hanks is the perfect actor for such roles. He resists nothing, takes all the changes in his stride, and soon begins to look twenty years’ younger. He picks up a part-time job in a friend’s diner, and becomes a model student.

Meanwhile, Ms. Tainot goes home to argue with her new-age writer husband, who spends his days ogling “bra buster” websites. It’s obvious that her life is also due for a change, and there are no prizes for guessing that Larry and Ms. Tainot will soon be stumbling down the path of true romance.

The art of this film is to turn such an obvious story into a convincing piece of cinema, and Hanks, making one of his rare appearances in the director’s chair, shows a supple touch. Even though this is a story in which every possibility of unpleasantness has been systematically expunged, it never becomes mawkish.

There are lots of potential pitfalls. Talia’s scooter group, for instance, is a Disneyfied version of a bikie gang where a multi-racial group of young people roam the streets just for fun. Ms. Tainot’s class is made up of loveable misfits, although not quite so loveable that one feels like getting up and running from the room. The soundtrack is a carefully chosen brew of soft rock, including three songs by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

If Larry Crowne feels anomalous, it is because it is an old-fashioned romantic comedy with a social conscience, in an era when Hollywood has fallen in love with special effects. It is a star vehicle for Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, but also a shameless attempt to play on the heartstrings of a generation of middle-aged Americans who have seen their values, their savings and self-esteem destroyed by the greed of corporate capitalism. Beneath the sugar coating there is a serious subtext to this tale of one man dropping anchor against the decline of a nation. Hanks’s comic message is finally no different to the view of Ralph Waldo Emerson: that salvation lies in self-reliance.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 23, 2011

USA. Rated M, 98 minutes