Larry Crowne and the Failure of Critics
July 2, 2011

Just got back from seeing Larry Crowne, and contrary to the bad reviews it’s getting, I enjoyed watching it. I’m glad I didn’t let them talk me away from it.

Starring Tom Hanks (who also directed and co-wrote the movie) and Julia Roberts, it’s the story of a laid-off mega-mart employee who goes back to college, particularly a speech communication class taught by the jaded Roberts. Here’s the trailer:

What I Liked About This Movie

Larry Crowne movie poster

Nice people work to make their lives better in small but significant ways, and things do slowly improve, especially with the aid of other nice people as friends. Tough decisions are made, but no one wallows in misery; everyone’s found some way to cope, although some (getting people to help out others, according to their talents) are obviously more productive than others (drinking).

It’s told with a really good cast, including George Takei, rocking that impressive voice, as an economics professor, and Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson as a bank employee.

Larry’s new best friend Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a bit of a “manic pixie dream girl”, except the idea that she and Larry would be romantically involved is made fun of. Instead, she’s called a “free spirit” and has the skill of bringing people together.

There are as many significant female roles than male, and they’re just as diverse. Larry’s neighbor Cedric the Entertainer, running a perpetual yard sale, helps him out, and then there’s Talia’s boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama, surprisingly) and a stoner classmate (Rami Malek, who was the adorable young Egyptian prince in Night at the Museum) for comic relief. But Cedric is usually accompanied by his wife (Taraji P. Henson), and Larry’s life changes because of Roberts and Talia. Roberts also chats with fellow teacher Pam Grier, and several other students are women, including Maria Canals-Barrera as Lala and Grace Gummer as a lacrosse player. (I kept wondering why she, in particular, looked familiar — it’s because she resembles her sister Mamie Gummer, who is often an opposing lawyer on The Good Wife, and both are daughters of Meryl Streep.)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne

Everyone with a speaking part gets a small bit of significant business. I’m not surprised to see that this was made by an actor with a nice-guy reputation, because it seems like a film actors would be proud to be part of. (In contrast, note that although Hanks co-wrote the film with Nia Vardalos, everyone who didn’t like it blames her and her alone for the “bad writing”.)

Why Don’t Critics Like This Film?

I have some speculation as to why reviewers don’t seem to like this film as much as the audience does. First is the nature of the job — because critics see so many movies (TV shows, comics, whatever), they wind up looking for the Significant or Meaningful or Unusual or Exceptional. As a result, simple good entertainment sometimes doesn’t stand out for them. This movie isn’t trying anything new or exciting, other than to tell its story effectively.

Second are the expectations. My mother mentioned one review that said that such exceptional talent as Hanks and Roberts should be doing something more important. But what’s more important than giving people a hopeful escape for a couple of hours, one that has them leaving the theater feeling better about things, maybe encouraged to make their own positive changes? Others were complaining that plot points weren’t spelled out enough for them. If a character, for example, you’ve seen drink inappropriately picks up a drink and then puts it down, I don’t want an overblown speech about how they’ve seen their errors and changed their ways. Real people don’t act like that. Significant decisions can be small but powerful. Some seem to be criticizing this film for having realer characters than the gigantic movies they normally watch.

Third is very possibly generational, or otherwise demographically linked. This is a middle America movie, and younger viewers may not understand or appreciate the lack of high drama (or special effects). Crowne’s wins are small — a better wardrobe, saving money on gas, having a skill that allows one to get hired, even if it isn’t your dream job. Crowne does a good job at whatever he does. That virtue of honest hard work, even if your occupation isn’t creative or sexy, is a lost value. Hanks’ age (55) is visible, as is Roberts’. They aren’t young people, but grown-ups, and how often do we see that on screen?

Fourth: It’s “bland”, says Roger Ebert, who goes on to trot out words like tedium, banality, and no “reason for existing”. I’m sorry to hear he was bored, but I didn’t have a moment where my attention lagged. I enjoyed spending time with these characters, I was rooting for their small victories, and I appreciated the craft and skill I saw on the film.

Fifth, it directly addresses the state of our nation. Larry loses his job although he’s an outstanding employee. He’s underwater on his house. He’s a military veteran whose service isn’t appreciated. He’s not bitter, but it’s a tough row to how. The depressing recession is still a reality in his world, far from entertainment or political capitals where decision-makers aren’t affected.

Last, there’s nothing shocking that happens here. This is the opposite of the current vogue of hard-R comedy where bodily functions are exploited to disgusting and outrageous effect. It’s not a laugh-out-loud comedy, although there are plenty of funny moments and jokes, but the kind that relies on simple enjoyment. It’s adult, not because of language or body parts, but because of its concerns and maturity. It’s sweet, not frantic or rushed. I encourage you, if you’re interested, to go see it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a perfect film — some of the characters are underwritten, existing more through performance than on the page — but it reminded me of a modern Frank Capra picture, about the essential good nature of the everyday guy.

15 Responses  
Caroline writes:  

This is encouraging! I honestly thought the trailers for this looked charming and was disappointed the reviews weren’t better. I don’t know if I’ll see it in the theater, but I’m charitably disposed to it and I appreciate the perspective of your review. Thanks.

Mark E writes:  

I think your speculation is pretty much spot-on, to be honest.

I am hardly on such an exalted level as any professional critic, but back when I was in university I spent five years as the regular film critic for the campus newspaper and despite an unappreciative editorial staff (yeah, I’m bitter) I paid my own money every weekend through the term and the summer to see a movie (I did the summer ones in huge write-ups that were a blast to do) because I loved writing and I loved movies.

Now, some seven years gone from that position I’ve seen exactly two movies in theaters in the past two years. I even noticed it as I went. You get very, very jaded. It’s like eating nothing but candy every day for a week, you get sick of it in a hurry and only something exceptional like a truffle stands out.

I could go on, but I am just going to agree with your view, even having not seen the film, and suggest that critics are indeed totally jaded.

Johanna writes:  

I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing critics, because they provide a useful purpose, especially when it comes to highlighting little-known but good items, but sometimes what they’re looking for is very different than what the audience may want. In the case of summer films, especially, I think Larry Crowne is a nice alternative to much bigger and louder movies.

Tim Rifenburg writes:  

There is nothing wrong with “nice” movies. Pleasant time wasters that introduce you to characters you like and tell a story you care about. Sometimes there are not enough of them. Critics complain about the movies that are predictable or not pushing the enveope but they miss the point that that those movies are what people are sometimes looking for. Pleasant diversions that entertain. But they have to be something the public (and studios think will be worth the cost). I’ve been looking forward to Larry Crowne because it had actors I like and a story I want know more about. Glad you enjoyed it.

Tatiana writes:  

I saw this movie earlier today and it was so amazing. I loved it. One of the things I really liked was how normal it was. I’m tired of extravagant characters trying to accomplish BIG THINGS. I liked how Cedric the Entertainer touched on race in terms of the job hunt – institutionalized racism is a real issue. The percentage of blacks and latinos being unemployed is significantly higher than that of blacks.

The female character aren’t hyper sexualized or reduced to petty parts. Talia plays an intricate role in helping Larry develop as a character, and we easily trace Ms. Roberts’ frustration as a teacher with disinterested students and lazy husband.

The changes in the movie are small, but significant as everyone develops and blossoms.

It’s definitely a wonderful movie. I hope they make more movies like it!

Paul O'Brien writes:  

According to Deadline, the Cinemascore audience surveys gave the film a B, but those under 35 gave it only a C+. So I’d question the assumption that the critics are particularly out of line with the broader audience reaction here.

Johanna writes:  

On what basis are you assuming that under 35s represent the “broader audience”? I would think that phrase better describes the overall score, not the demographically youthful, which I contend don’t have the life experience to fully appreciate the film.

Grant writes:  

Nice review. It makes me want to see the movie. The trailers on the other hand, do not. This has to be one of the worst marketing jobs I’ve ever seen. The trailer actually makes me actively dislike it. I’ll definitely give it a chance when it comes on dvd because I do like those themes of bettering ones self and little victories that mean a lot to the regular joe.

Nick writes:  

I saw this in part because of your good review, Johanna, so thanks! It was a really good movie that deserves to be noticed for some things that critics may have missed.

To add something to what you said about the “state of the nation” element, and what Tatiana said about normal people, I think the movie is pretty honest about class. Everything from saving money on gas to trying to face a foreclosure with pride are just the realities for a lot of working and middle class people. My wife and I left the movie appalled as we counted the number of shows we watch on TV whose characters would have to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to afford their lifestyle (Modern Family, for instance). I realized how much those things mess with my head; I think I”m going to be changing my viewing habits significantly. (Bridesmaids also did a great job of writing class in a real way, so it’s a good summer!).

Another note: I’ve taught community college and had a LOT of students who were veterans and older workers who came to school after a lay off. The critics may not have a lot of experience with that social environment–they must have at least gone to college to get their jobs, right? So maybe they can’t sympathize, but I think this movie really has a purpose: it lets people who struggle and people who teach them feel like they can have dignity and love in their lives. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Johanna writes:  

I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it! You make some good points, and it is eye-opening to note how much certain things are taken for granted in terms of income and class in our entertainment.

James Schee writes:  

I want to see it because it looks really sweet and good hearted story which there aren’t enough of. Plus I find myself in the same spot as Larry, going back to college at an older age for something that isn’t a passion but is something I’d be good at and provide me with steady work while not taking long to achieve.

Paul Odegard writes:  

Not long into viewing the feel-good flick “Larry Crowne” I decided that the movie was, as it remained, enjoyably bland, but worse insipidly untruthful to the plight of many Americans today. I’ll keep my remarks brief. First, a veteran of 20 years in the Navy would be recieving monthly retirement checks that would have somewhat offset the loss of income from Larry’s retail job. Second, Larry would not leave 20 years in the service to low-paying retail middle-management (floor) job without some explanation. He would more likely stay in the Navy until something more lucrative and secure came along. Third, a corporation like Target or Wal-mart would not fire someone for not rising higher in the organization. If a person was not rising and was earning too much, as is the case with older workers, the business managers would continue to pile on work expectations and pressure, making the work environment so onerous and humiliating until the older worker would get fed up and quit, forfeiting severance pay and unemployment and saving the corporation a lot of money on top of the lower-paid replacement. Next, retail jobs are much easier to find than many others due to the big tunrover tate of workers, over 100% a year. So, Larry probably could find work, but it would probably be beneath his usual pay and experience. Last, in the current market, even people with college degrees are being laid off and are having a hard time finding decent-paying jobs or any work at all. Going to a community college for one semester would notmake Larry any more competitive in today’s job market. However, in this easily watchable (if you leave your intelligence locked away somewhere) movie puts a happy face via Tom Hanks on some very painful situations facing America’ workforce today. Where in this movie is the humiliation a person faces in today’s workplace when he’s laid off after many years of loyal service and escorted out by security as if he or she had committed some crime? Where is the underhanded efforts of management as they badger a worker into quitting and their corprate lawyers who try to deny the ex-worker any benefits? Where is the constant worry about paying next month’s house payment, groceries, and credit card bills? Where’s the loss of self esteem suffered by the unemployed? Where’s the internal struggle to stay positive after going back to a low-paying job (short order cook) when your skills are so much greater and the pay still isn’t enough to keep your house? The result of all these omissions is to create a very falsly positive picture of what a real Larry Crowne would face and that millions of Larry’s and Louise’s are facing today. It’s always a treat to watch Ton Hanks and Julia Roberts, and the rest of the lovable cast, and I enjoy a happy ending, but this movie distorts or ignores someharsh realities to reach a contrived, happy ending. By the way, a new love in her life would not cure Mercy’s alcohol problem nor suddenly make her a better teacher. Therefore, “Larry Crowne” is nothing but the usual corporate, Hollywood guilty pleasure at best. Unlike an honest movie like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, which was made by people who are intimately knowledgeable and in love with their subject (Paris, nostagia for a golden era, art, literature, the human condidtion), “Larry Crowne” is a shallow and dishonest treatment unworthy of the talents of Hanks(who can only blame himself) and Roberts.

Pat writes:  

Interesting review. The trailer was lackluster but now I have become half interested in seeing it.

Catherine writes:  

I just saw it tonight and I was pleasantly surprised. I considered waiting for the DVD, but then I thought I’d like to give my money to a romantic comedy with some older actors in it because I usually enjoy the escape. (I’m 55 myself.) I thought this movie was charming, and I very much enjoyed the quirky yet real characters. I think your review was right on!

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[…] still like this movie. It’s an optimistic portrait of a particular time period, and I don’t think viewers […]


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