The concept of Everyman – a character who stands for humanity – has been a staple ever since the modern rebirth of drama with the morality plays of the Middle Ages. In The Summoning of Everyman, written in the 1400’s, the characters were allegorical representations of good and evil. It also contained the imagery of God tallying good deeds and sins recorded in a large book, a concept that still affects the popular understanding of Christianity. In the movie era, there are rare actors that the public accepts in that allegorical role of Everyman. Jimmy Stewart was a prime example.
While modern life has increased in its complexity, the allegorical everyman retains its power. For this generation, Tom Hanks is an actor who has stepped into that role. Whether he’s Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Chuck Noland in Cast Away, or Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, we become enwrapped in his performance and, through his character’s arc, we learn lessons about ourselves. But just as modern life is more complex, so is Mr. Hanks. He’s an award-winning producer and director (Band of Brothers) in addition to being a writer (That Thing You Do). In his new movie Larry Crowne, he wears all of those hats – and looks good doing it.
Larry is an exemplary worker at a big box retail store who’s won the employee of the month award eight times straight. When he’s called in for a meeting with the managers, he assumes it’s for his ninth award. Instead, he’s told he’s being let go. He’d never gone to college, choosing instead to join the Navy after high school, which prevents him from qualifying for a management job. Since he can’t go any higher, company policy is to let him go. Suddenly he finds himself in an all-too-familiar position for many people these days – out of a job and overextended financially. After a fruitless search for another job, Larry’s neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) recommends that he enroll in college. To protect himself from future downsizing, Larry follows Lamar’s advice.
One of his classes is extraneous public speaking, taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts). Mercedes is approaching complete burnout and feels she has no affect on her students. It doesn’t help that she’s married to a self-absorbed, middle-aged adolescent (Bryan Cranston), a published author who now spends his time blogging when he’s not surfing porn sites. Larry also comes under the influence of Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a free spirit scooter rider who redoes his wardrobe and rearranges his life.
The script, written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (who wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that Hanks produced), is filled with polished diamonds of supporting roles. George Takei plays an economics professor who seems to have beamed down from some bizarre world. Taraji P. Henson is Lamar’s bubbly wife while Wilmer Valderrama is Del Gordo, the leader of a group of scooter riders who is in love with Talia. Even the smaller roles are given definition, such as Hanks’ classmates. Among them are Grace Gummer as the immigrant Natalie Calimeras (who does accents as beautifully as her mother, Meryl Streep), Rami Malek as the woefully shallow class clown, and Malcolm Barrett, who has a beautiful scene giving a speech in support of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (in full Federation costume). Rita Wilson (Mrs. Hanks) has a wonderful cameo as a vapid loan officer, and listen carefully when Julia Roberts is plagued by a verbal GPS that won’t turn off. The voice is done by Nia Vardalos.
Hanks is quietly brilliant as always. In one night scene, he stands in front of his foreclosed house looking at the neighborhood where he thought he would spend the rest of his life. The loss is palpable without a single word being said. Yet you’ll delight in his happy dance on Professor Tainot’s front step. Julia Roberts gives one of her best performances since Erin Brockovich as a woman who, just like Larry Crowne, must go through major life changes in order to survive. The true surprise is Mbatha-Raw, who energizes the screen whenever she’s on it. As her boyfriend points out to Larry, everyone falls in love with Talia – the audience included. For any Dr. Who enthusiasts, you’ve seen her before; she played Martha Jones’ sister Tish during the third season. You may also have caught her in the J.J. Abrams series “Undercovers” last year, though it only lasted 13 episodes. Based on this performance, I think we’ll see a great deal more of her in the future.
Besides being poignant and touching, the script is laugh-out-loud funny and witty. While the ending has its fanciful aspect, it is a satisfying one.
Summer is usually the time for huge productions with bloated budgets and a 2 or 3 (or even a 4) in the title. The dialogue is lost amid the massive explosions and machine gun fire, and frankly that’s often a mercy. If you’re looking for an antidote to all that mayhem, you’ll find it in Larry Crowne.