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Jason Wallis ‘Larry Crowne’ proves that Tom Hanks should stay in front of the camera

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, July 8, 2011 9:10 am

Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — I see a movie so completely worthless that I wish I could dispense with a full review and simply say something like, “‘Larry Crowne’ should be avoided on the grounds that it is stupid, and also Julia Roberts is a hag.’” It’s simple, succinct and tells you everything you need to know.

That’s part of the reason I don’t like reviewing bad films: They’ve already wasted two hours of my time, so why should they waste another hour, plus five of yours, after it’s already been established that said film is a complete waste of time? Think about it …

Still, I recognize that some people require more convincing. And in the case of “Larry Crowne,” the discomfort you will likely experience while viewing it is so extreme that I feel morally obligated to break things down in slightly more detail, lest you take my one-sentence review as an attempt at glib hyperbole and decide to see it anyway. So read on, friend, and be convinced. And expect a (hopefully) more positive review next week when we look at “Horrible Bosses.”

I always look forward to movies directed by established actors. Part of this interest stems from the fact that the acting community has produced some fine directors over the years — most recently with Ben Affleck, who has quickly climbed to the top of the list of new filmmakers worth watching. But even if an actor-turned-director never finds that level of artistic success, it’s still fascinating to see what certain actors have — or haven’t — learned during their time working with veteran filmmakers, and how that knowledge is reflected in their own work.

“Larry Crowne” marks Tom Hanks’ sophomore effort as a filmmaker, after the wholly unremarkable “That Thing You Do!” 15 years ago, and it is now disturbingly clear that Hanks has learned very little in his decades working with top-tier filmmakers. Stylistically, the movie is somewhat playful (a fun opening credits sequence depicting our hero going about his work day at a retail outlet is easily the best scene in the film) but ultimately uninspired. However, this is to be expected — not everyone can be Orson Welles, and one only needs to look at the filmographies of former Hanks collaborators like Ron Howard, Mike Nichols, Robert Zemeckis and Frank Darabont to see that, absent a consistent eye for the camera, one can still make great films rooted in sharp writing and meaningful characterizations.

Unfortunately, Hanks does not utilize quality writing and characters to make up for his lack of skill as a visual artist. Co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), “Larry Crowne” should serve as a template for future screenwriters on how not to write a film. Following the college exploits of the title character (played by Hanks) after he is fired from his longtime job due to a lack of formal education, the movie attempts to be “of the now,” like a working-class “Up in the Air.” Hanks’ intent was to craft a realistic, interpersonal story of self-discovery in an increasingly commodity-obsessed society. But by ignoring the details of Crowne’s economic struggle to instead focus on his somewhat creepy friendship with a young free spirit and fellow student, the film quickly abandons social relevance in favor of “cutesy” humor as Crowne leaves behind his former life to lead a new, carefree existence filled with hair gel, Feng Shui and pocket chains. Lovely.

But all this would make “Larry Crowne” a mediocre film, not an awful one. What tips the scale is Julia Roberts, who plays Crowne’s public speaking professor. Now, my venomous hatred of Roberts is known far and wide, and I make no secret of the fact that her very existence makes me question my belief in God’s benevolence. That said, her work in “Larry Crowne” goes far beyond the realm of acceptance even for viewers who don’t already harbor an intense dislike for the actress.

As written, the character is a nasty, bitter viper of a woman whose life as a professor is so difficult, and the people around her so incredibly stupid and beneath her, that she has to embrace alcoholism just to survive the onslaught. She is rude and demeaning without any provocation whatsoever, and the vast majority of her purpose in the film is to sit around, looking like a bull frog trapped in a G-force simulator, waiting for Crowne to sweep her off her feet for no discernable reason at all. Their “romance” doesn’t begin to bud until the film’s final act, and by then her character has become so shrewish and genuinely intolerable that anyone who’s been paying attention is actively rooting for them not to get together.

With this disjointed mishmash of lazy humor and inept characterizations, Hanks has shown himself to be an incapable filmmaker who cannot be trusted with the simplest of tasks. On the bright side, since the film has already proven itself a box-office failure, perhaps that means we won’t be accosted by another Tom Hanks labor of love for at least another 15 years. I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna live every day between now and then like it’s my last.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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