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Larry Crowne: Forced Plot, Flat Characters

By Pam Glazier · July 5, 2011

In this new comedy/drama/romance written, directed, and produced by Tom Hanks, we find the title character Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) fired after years of being the perfect employee at a Target-like mega-store because he never got a college education. “Times are tough,” his downsizer empathizes. Larry must now make grand changes in his life or drown in debt. His neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), who’s been living comfortably ever since he won the lottery, suggests that Larry go back to school and thus get the qualifications he was fired over. On Larry’s first day, he meets a spunky free spirit Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who takes him on as a pet project and brings him into her motor-scooter gang. Meanwhile, Larry’s speech professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) drinks away her unhappiness over her unfulfilling career and porn-addicted, unemployed, “writer” husband…

Anyway, you see where this is going. Crappy stuff happens to a good guy, but perhaps it’s really a karmatic-blessing in disguise. Now, this story should really resonate with audiences because we all know someone who was blind-sided drastically by the financial meltdown, but it doesn’t really resonate because there are way too many “too good to be true” coincidences in this thing. While Larry is registering for classes, the Dean of Student Services (Holmes Osborne) introduces himself and tells Larry what classes he should take to “change his life.” This sort of impromptu dean/student advising would never happen, and so seems unrealistic. And, of course, the bubbly Talia has nothing better to do as an early-20s college student than to attach herself to a man in his 50s and give him a full life makeover. And, of course, Larry is now a financial wizard because of the Econ class he is taking, and he later gives Talia a money-makeover that allows her to feasibly open her own business. There are other instances, but the plot is entirely too forced, which creates an overly “co-ink-i-dink” experience.

But if you’re a sucker for forced plot dynamics, surely you’ll suffer from a lack of character development. Everybody is flat. The only flaw that the usually jovial Larry Crowne has is not adhering to “the man’s” standards by not having gone to college. Really? That’s all they could come up with. Now I’m not saying he should be bi-polar or missing an arm, but something else, anything would do: a weird quirk, a small fetish, a pet mouse even. And while his speech professor, Mercedes Tainot, is rife with faults, it’s all cleanly explained away by the fact that her job and husband are crap, which implies that she’s a victim of circumstances (which makes her weak) and she is entitled not to have to take responsibility (which makes her lame). And then there’s Talia, who has her new-bohemian-motor-scooter-gang, and nothing more.

And this is all terribly depressing because I really wanted to really like this movie. The story has an interesting premise, and the characters, although not fully formed nor sticky around the edges, are at least fun. But the “hey, what do you know, wasn’t that convenient” plot connectors were just too much to overcome, and ultimately ruin the experience. They take away any realism and made me feel as if I was just watching people go through the motions. The actors salvaged what they could, but even so, the film still comes off as kind of fluffy in a “meh” sort of way. Fluffy is fine (if it’s a straight rom-com or an animated film about  furry forest friends), but I wanted to care about these characters at a deeper level, and I was denied that due to the extreme lack of conflict.  

Tom Hanks is a man with perspective. He has written, directed, and/or produced some very tense and moving dramas that capture the essence of true crisis with his TV mini-series Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon. In his defense, Larry Crowne does attempt to capture this sense of crisis, but this time on a smaller scale. And a small scale is fine as long as the conflict within that small world feels enormous. Larry Crowne, unfortunately, failed to deliver any small-scale high-stakes worth caring about.