Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 2, 2011)
With Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as its stars, how could 2011’s Larry Crowne flop? Because it’s not 1999 anymore?
No, I don’t think that Hanks and Roberts have lost all box office value, but they seem far from their glory days, and Crowne did nothing to change that. Despite a prime July 1 release date intended to push it as “mature counterprogramming” against the Transformers: Dark of the Moon juggernaut, the flick totally flopped. Crowne grossed a mere $35 million and made little dent with moviegoers.
Quiet, character-based movies occasionally strike it rich in the summer – co-writer Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding showed this with its $241 million take in 2002 – but they’re rare beasts. Larry Crowne (Hanks) loves his job as a team leader at “big box” store UMart – until he gets downsized due to his lack of a college degree. This shocks him and leaves him adrift, as he possesses an “underwater mortgage” and other financial concerns due to his divorce.
Unable to land a new job, Larry heads to community college to bolster his marketability. He signs up for a mix of classes that would seem to help him develop new skills and prevent a repeat of the UMart firing.
As one of his classes, he ends up in Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks. Taught by Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), she’s burned out by too many disinterested students and her need to carry slacker husband Dean (Bryan Cranston), a writer who putzes around all day when he should work on a new novel. We follow Larry’s journey and how it affects those around him, with an emphasis on Mercedes.
Crowne marks only Hanks’ second stint behind the camera, as it marks his first directorial effort since 1996’s That Thing You Do!, another commercial disappointment. Thing was a less notable box office dud, though, as it lacked the star power of Crowne; yeah, Hanks himself played a role, but he was a supporting actor, and no one else boasted marquee appeal back then. (Liv Tyler and Charlize Theron would go on to stardom later.)
Over the last 15 years, Thing has been able to find a good cult audience and earn the appreciation that escaped it in 1996. I don’t foresee such a fate for Crowne due to one simple factor: unlike the delightful Thing, Crowne is a pretty lousy movie.
Oh, it’s a peppy lousy movie, and a peppy lousy movie that actually manages some fun and charm during its first 18 minutes or so. The flick includes some good performers and loose, irreverent laughs, especially when Larry goes to his haggling neighbor Lamar’s (Cedric the Entertainer) never-ending yard sale. Crowne doesn’t quite soar, but it has some light pleasures.
And then Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) arrives. Larry’s econ classmate and Official Irrepressible Free Spirit, Talia is the most annoying character in a movie packed with annoying characters. That’s the movie’s main flaw, really: it shows us a wide range of wacky personalities with little other purpose than to be wacky. Occasionally it feels like nothing more than a conglomeration of these cartoony characters, and the impish Talia acts as their queen.
I chalk this development up to the presence of Vardalos as co-writer. Greek Wedding was a virtual warehouse for broad, obnoxious roles; even the great Andrea Martin couldn’t elevate the awful material, and that issue consistently mars Crowne. I’ve never seen Mbatha-Raw before, and I’m sure she’s a lovely woman, but every time Talia hopped onto the screen, I wanted to smash my TV.
The more I think about it, the more I really suspect the script accounts for 95 percent of the film’s problems. The entire thing seems so relentlessly contrived and artificial, and that goes double for the relationship between Larry and Mercedes. Everything the movie does acts to push them together for no logical reason other than Tom and Julia are big stars so they’re supposed to get smoochy-smoochy.
The narrative – if we can call this loose assemblage of moments that – finds little reason to motivate events. Instead, they just kind of occur. Larry goes through a big transformation because Talia inexplicably develops a great fondness for him, and a relentless parade of nutty characters show up along the way.
All of this attempts to pass for entertainment and charm, but after the reasonably likable start, it peters out quickly. Much of that comes from the annoying Talia, but even without her, I think Crowne would quickly lose steam. It’s essentially a self-help book morphed into a fairly formless character comedy that can’t overcome its inherent phoniness.