The Magazine

Larry the Fable Guy

A feel-good film leaves a feeling of queasiness.

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks

Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks

Directed by Tom Hanks

Half a century ago, the novelist Herbert Gold tried writing for television and turned in a script that was deemed wanting. “No more downbeat dramas!” he was told. “We want happy stories about happy people with happy problems.” That is the perfect description of Larry Crowne, the new movie cowritten and directed by its star, Tom Hanks. Though it tells a nightmarish story about a divorced middle-aged man who loses the very modest job he loves and finds himself carrying a house whose mortgage he cannot afford and with no prospects for the future, Larry Crowne is a determinedly peppy picture.

After a short montage of job rejections, Larry hies himself off to community college, becomes part of a multi-ethnic gang of scooter-riders, gets new clothes and a new hairstyle and a job as a short-order cook, and catches the eye of his unhappily married public-speaking professor, Julia Roberts. His profound woes, it turns out, are little more than happy problems, curable with the right attitude.

Larry is unencumbered by responsibilities that might make his circumstances more discomfiting. Hanks and his cowriter, Nia Vardalos, don’t want anyone like Larry Crowne to find Larry Crowne unduly painful, so they just excise the pain. Rarely has middle-aged loneliness been such a blessing. His wife left him and he has no kids, no infirm mother, no senile father. In fact, it appears that he has literally nothing in his life but his job as assistant manager of a big-box store in the San Fernando Valley. And yet the loss of that job—depicted in an astoundingly false scene in which the devoted Larry, a 20-year Navy veteran who was nine times Employee of the Month, is belittled for his lack of education as he is handed his walking papers—does not devastate him or even wound him particularly. Nor does the loss of his house later in the picture. He seems impervious to the very real disasters and disappointments that have befallen him. 

Hanks was brilliant and heartbreaking as the desperate man stranded alone on an island in Cast Away 11 years ago, but he seems to have lost the understanding he showed there of how an ordinary person is forced to cope when fate deals him a terrible hand. In 2006, Variety trumpeted the fact that Hanks had purchased the rights to a memoir called How Starbucks Saved My Life, the account of a senior executive let go from his firm who took a job as a barista and found new meaning outside the rat race. That must have been the core concept for Larry Crowne, only Hanks made the decision to play an Everyman rather than a bigwig. Of course, the notion that a layoff could provide a growth experience was the sort of thing we all liked to believe at a time when housing prices were rising in tandem with 401(k) values.

But now, long-term unemployment is reaching levels unseen in 80 years, the reality is that people like Larry Crowne are mired in circumstances from which it will take them years to recover. Given these facts, Hanks’s cutesy approach as director, writer, and star has resulted in a series of jaw-dropping bizarreries and a yuk-yuk tone that conjure up the godawful Disney youth comedies of the 1960s (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Love Bug). Once Larry steps onto the community college campus, he arrives in a jaunty Munchkinland where beautiful 20-year-old girls riding on scooters happily cut his hair, improve his wardrobe, and provide him with an entirely new social life for no good reason. His fellow students adore him and his teachers respect him, but he is mostly silent and looks puzzled and gives them no cause for their enthusiasm other than that he is embodied by Tom Hanks.

About his relationship with his public-speaking teacher, played by Julia Roberts, the less said, the better. Indeed, the less said about Julia Roberts, the better—save this: The clock is fast ticking to the time when she will be grateful to be playing the female lead on CSI: Dubuque.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to find a light tone in addressing the woes of those caught in the present economic calamity. Hanks and Vardalos probably thought they were updating the great Depression-era comedies, like My Man Godfrey (in which an educated man brought low becomes a butler to a nouveau riche family) and Easy Living (in which a rich man angrily hurls a fur coat off his balcony that lands on the head of an astonished shopgirl riding a double-decker bus down Fifth Avenue). Those movies proceeded from the premise that rich people were silly and stupid and needed some wising-up at the hands of honest ordinary folk. They flattered their audience in this way.

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