Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts smirks at Tom Hanks' new CHiPS-inspired look.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Bryan Cranston, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Rita Wilson, Jon Seda, Rob Riggle, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tom Hanks

There are occasions in life where it becomes necessary to reinvent ourselves. We are almost forced to take stock, figure out what’s not working and attempt to fixing.

Ex-Navy “culinary specialist” (read: cook) Larry Crowne (Hanks) is sailing along at the big-box chain where he works and has won eight employee-of-the-month awards. He figures he’s being called in to win his ninth; but instead is dismayed to discover that he is being downsized. The reason? He has no college education (having chosen to serve his country instead) and has gone as far as he can go at the company without one. Not wanting to leave him in the same position for years to come, he is instead let go. Nobody ever said that big companies are logical.

He is underwater on his mortgage after buying out his wife after a somewhat messy divorce. After an unsuccessful attempt to refinance with an unctuous loan officer (Wilson), Larry is forced to start selling off his stuff at a perpetual yard sale run by his grouchy neighbor Lamar (Cedric) and his friendlier wife (Henson), who turns Larry on to the idea of going back to school. Larry also buys a scooter to get him places more economically.

At the local community college he takes a speech class with Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Roberts), a somewhat burned-out teacher who uses alcohol to numb out and help her forget she’s married to Dean (Cranston), formerly a promising science fiction author turned into a slacker with a penchant for commenting on blogs and surfing for porn on the internet. Mercy has the distinct impression that she is making not a whit of difference in the lives of her students.

He also takes an economics class under the watchful eye of the quirky Dr. Matsutani (Takei) who isn’t above a little self-promotion but has a distinct hatred of cell phones. In the class is the free-spirited Talia (Mbatha-Raw), who brings in Larry into her scooter gang, led by her boyfriend Dell (Valderrama). Talia decides to take Larry on as a bit of a project, remaking his house and his appearance in a more modern image.

Gradually Larry begins to rediscover himself, getting a job at a local diner and finding self-confidence through his speech class. Meanwhile, as Mercy’s marriage continues to fall apart, Larry begins to fall a little bit for the attractive but closed-off teacher, although Mercy assumes that Larry and Talia are together because of her clear affection for him.

That’s essentially it for plot. Hanks co-wrote and directed this star vehicle (this marks his second feature film as a director after the far superior That Thing You Do! back in 1996) tends to a gentle, inoffensive style in both writing and directing. I’ve often characterized Hanks as a modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman with a heart of gold. He plays that role to the hilt here.

He is matched by Roberts, whose luster is undimmed 20 years after Pretty Woman. She still has one of the most radiant smiles you’ll ever see, although you’ll see far more frowning from her here which is a bit of a shame – but she nonetheless fills her role well. While the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts isn’t as electric as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War, they still work well together onscreen.

In fact this is very much a project moved forward by star wattage. The likability of Hanks and Roberts lies at the core of the film, and Hanks the director wisely utilizes it. He has a pretty strong supporting cast, but it is Mbatha-Raw who charms most. Best known here for her work in “Doctor Who,” she is incandescent and lights up the screen whenever she’s on. “Star Trek” veteran Takei also is strong as the curmudgeonly economics professor, while Cedric recycles his stage persona adequately enough. Valderrama breaks out of his “That 70s Show” type as the tough-seeming teddy bear Dell.

There are a lot of quirky characters here, from the self-absorbed student (Malek) to the slacker husband (Cranston) and most of them aren’t developed all that well. We could have done with a number of them altogether, quite frankly. Also, I felt Larry is a bit too passive here. He reacts to people who essentially re-shape him. He just kind of goes along with it; Lamar suggests he goes to college, he goes to college. The proprietor of a local diner suggests Larry start working for him, Larry goes to work for him. Talia wants Larry to change his wardrobe and add a wallet chain, Larry does. Larry becomes a blank slate which everyone around him draws their version of him on; he could have used a little more self-assertiveness.

The movie takes a situation that all too many Americans are feeling – laid off, middle aged, at a crossroads of life – and really doesn’t do a lot with it. There isn’t a lot of angst here; Larry has a few depressed moments, caught in montage early on, and then rolls up his sleeves and gets about the job of finding himself a new job. He meets with rejection but that doesn’t really figure much into the plot. It’s more of a means of getting the story from point “A” to point “B.” To my way of thinking, there were some lost opportunities here for commentary on the current economic state of things but apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to do that

Be that as it may, the movie still makes you feel good. There is no raunchiness here at all as there is at most of the summer comedies you’ll see this year. That in itself is rather pleasing; it’s nice once in awhile to see a comedy that doesn’t rely on pushing the boundaries for humor. The good thing about Larry Crowne is that no matter what kind of rotten mood you’re in (and I was in a foul one when I saw it) you’ll leave the theater feeling good – and if you’re in a good mood to begin with, you’ll leave the theater feeling better. I’m sure some Hollywood blurb-writer will coin it “the feel-good movie of the summer,” but for once the blurb will be accurate.

REASONS TO GO: A warmhearted comedy that relies heavily on the charm of its stars. Will pick you up even on a bad day.

REASONS TO STAY: A few too many quirky characters. The character of Larry might be a little too passive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual content but otherwise pretty mild.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Talk of the Town.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.


TOMORROW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Unknown White Male

Unknown White Male

Doug Bruce is haunted by the blank spot that is his past.

(Wellspring) Doug Bruce, Rupert Murray. Directed by Rupert Murray

We are a product of the things we remember. Our lives are shaped by our experiences, our book-learned knowledge and our relationships. All of this resides in our memory. Who would we be if our memory failed us?

That’s what happened to Doug Bruce, a handsome and successful British expatriate who had been raised in a well-to-do family, become a success in Paris as a stockbroker, then abruptly quit the financial business and moved to New York City to study photography. From what it seemed, he was in the process of reinventing himself already when he received the ultimate reinvention.

One July morning in 2003 he awoke to find himself on a subway train with no idea how he got there or where the train was going to. A few moments later, he had a far more chilling revelation; he didn’t have any idea who he was, where he lived or what his name was.

He got off the train at Coney Island and made his way to a police station and explained the situation. They sent him in turn to a hospital where doctors examined him while the police tried to find some clue about who he was. He was carrying no identification on him, no wallet but he did have a backpack in which a phone number was written on a book he was carrying.. The police called the number and had the woman on the other end speak to the amnesiac, but she didn’t recognize him. However when her daughter saw him on television, she knew immediately who he was.

This documentary is about Doug and his journey to in essence rediscover himself. The filmmaker, who also narrates the film, was friends with Doug before the amnesia. That works both for and against the film. He has knowledge about Doug both before and after the amnesia which makes him something of an expert. However, his friendship with the subject puts his objectivity in the wastebasket. Whether or not it’s a fair trade-off is really for the viewer to decide.

As the film progresses, Doug loses his immediate need to reconnect with his past and slowly begins forging his own personality, one which according to his friends differs significantly from his old one. In essence, he becomes an entirely new person, one who only shares a body with the old Doug Bruce. The ramifications of that are astounding when you think about it.

It should be noted that full retrograde amnesia of the sort that Doug is afflicted by is incredibly rare and is usually temporary – in fact, it is so rare that the condition becomes permanent that medical professionals have raised questions about whether Doug’s condition is a hoax. There has been additional speculation about that in the press.

I am not nearly qualified enough to render an opinion one way or the other and only bring it up in the interest of full disclosure. I will only say that we know so little about how the brain works that anything is, in my opinion, possible and those neurologists who say that Doug is faking because of some absolute belief that they understand how the brain works is arrogant and foolish. Let’s just say that it is theoretically possible that someone could suffer a complete and permanent retrograde amnesia and leave it at that.

What matters to me is the movie and from a standpoint of holding my interest it certainly does that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no memories of your past; it would be as if you had died and been reincarnated in your same body. The thought makes my skin crawl.

I would have like to have been given more background on the medical side; there is an indication that a severe physical trauma or emotional trauma is normally what triggers this kind of condition, but Doug showed no signs of either. Doctors are in fact puzzled at what might have caused his condition (although an unrelated pineal tumor is discovered later in the film); in fact, no cause has been pinpointed to date for Doug’s condition and his memory has yet to return.

So who is Doug Bruce and what is to become of him? These are the questions that Murray attempts to at least partially answer and in all honesty, these are questions that are ultimately unanswerable. It is hard enough to figure out who we are with the benefit of our experience and memories; to do so with a blank slate must be frightening indeed. I do not envy Doug Bruce in the slightest, but I will admit that his story raises some questions that will have me pondering for quite a while.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie raises fascinating questions about the role of our memories in determining who we are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The possible causes for his condition aren’t adequately explored.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and the subject matter is on the adult side, but all in all it’s suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce was raised in Nigeria.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on Bruce’s condition.