It is good to be white in the movies.
Take Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks). At the start of the movie named after him, he’s happy, picking up trash in the parking lot at the California U-Mart where he’s regularly Employee of the Month, playfully instructs his delighted co-workers, and quite literally smiles his way through each moment of his day—even when he has to clean a kid’s puke off the mechanical pony. It’s a little too cute, all this joy-joy, and so you’re not surprised to find that another shoe drops, namely, the recession that’s become so trendy as a topic in movies today. Larry’s fired, his dim bosses tell him, because he never went to college.
Their logic is absurd, designed to convince you instantly that Larry’s sympathetic and they’re not. The company wants to be able to promote all its employees, they tell him, and gosh, they had to advance the dope with just three years at Chico State before Larry. “Being fired is always a bitch,” that dope tells him.
Larry takes the bad news like the nice guy he is. Within a few minutes you sort of see how he’s ended up in this uninspired place, following his 20 years in the Navy (when he traveled all over the world) and then his need to support a wife who’s recently left him. And now that he can’t find a new gig—he makes a few cold calls, checks in at the hardware store and a book store, the decides he might as well do what he should have done before: he’ll go back to school.
Lucky Larry. He’s encouraged in his new venture by his wonderfully warm and perfectly quirky next-door neighbors, Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), living off half a million dollars he won on a TV game show, and running what’s reputed to be the best yard sale ever, every day. Lamar offers Larry the kind of advice only a black best friend in the movies can offer, like, he was fired because “the man” hated him. “Look at my color,” Lamar instructs. “I know what I’m talking about.”
Maybe he does. At any rate, he’s supportive and funny, exactly what the white guy needs and tends to get in the movies. And indeed, at East Valley Community College, Larry’s luck only gets better. When he decides to ride a motorbike rather than his gas-eating SUV, he’s greeted on his first day by the utterly adorable Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She’s part of a gang, she tells him, and after she’s suggested he needs to adjust his costuming (because he looks like a cop, you know, in his shades and tucked-in polo shirt), she invites him to join.
It happens that her boyfriend, Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama) is in this gang too, and when Larry first approaches the members gather around him, their helmets visible. Yes, these are motorbike enthusiasts. And Larry’s on his way to a complete makeover, thanks to Talia’s sense of fashion and design: she straightens his house so it’s “feng shui,” she tells him. He’s also improved, as a character in a movie, anyway, by Gordo’s frankly remarkable charms: their exchanges provide the film’s most entertaining moments, and because Gordo is very quietly self-expressive, only one or two are functions of dialogue. (The general shortcomings of the film’s dialogue—and structure—might be attributed to co-writers Hanks and Nia Vardalos, who have fashioned a broad, schlumpy sort of comedy that is only sometimes pressed into a shape by nuanced performances.)
Larry’s actual college experience, the experience apart from those cute montages of swarms of bikes, the experience that will, he’s told by the dean, change his life, is rendered even more clumsily. He’s lucky, again, to have an apparently awesome econ teacher, Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), who punctuates his lectures with diabolical laughter and the soon routine command that Larry stop texting (you gather Larry is supposed to be intelligent, at least at some level, but he’s an abject idiot on this point). And he’s fortunate that his teacher for Speech 217 is Julia Roberts.
Named Mercedes Tainot for this movie, Roberts is who she always is, vivacious and a great laugher, only a little more frustrated upfront. Miserable that her husband, Dean (Bryan Cranston), is not only a failed science fiction writer, but also a habitual cruiser of internet pages featuring busty women in their underwear (Mercy calls it porn, the better to be angry at her lay-about lame-ass of a life partner). Mercy’s generalized rage doesn’t quite affect her teaching, except that her instruction is minimal. And so she’s lucky to have students—including Larry, a Trekkie named Dave (Malcolm Barrett) and a lacrosse player named Natalie (Grace Gummer, who looks quite like her sister and her mother)—who are astoundingly eager to please, enthusiastically speechifying on topics they know nothing about, applauding each other and genuinely excited when they do well.
Mercy is also lucky that her problems outside the classroom are minor. But as she struggles—with Dean, with her frozen daiquiris, with the GPS in her car—the movie seems unable to find a way to complicate her. For of course, she’s in place to be saved by Larry Crowne, which means she’s mostly waiting for the end of the semester before she can see that plot turn, the one that happens so fast when it does that you’ll still wonder how it happened, even though you’ve known it was coming since the movie began. In the meantime, she has a best friend at school, a fellow teacher with an office just across the hall from hers. Frances is wise and loyal and helps Mercy sort out her feelings about her drinking and Larry Crowne. And Frances is something else, too: she’s Pam Grier.