Monday, 19 July 2021

Streaming on YouTube - John Baxter learns some lessons from LARRY CROWNE (Tom Hanks, USA, 2011)

Tom Hanks fixes Julia Roberts' GPS

A Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor has as much bad to say as good about the golden age of American radio. How effectively it moulded a nation of isolated rural communities into a single audience,  ready to accept the most innovative ideas. And how dismally it failed to exploit that power. “The sheer trashiness of radio,” laments Keillor, “The tedium and garbage and false pomposity. No local pride, no home-town heroes except crooners and comedians and all-round numbskulls.”

            How much more disappointing, then, the record of Hollywood, which frittered away on diversion its power to inform, educate and inspire.  Delightful and exhilarating diversion, of course, but can anyone claim, hand on heart, that they learned anything from movies?  

            Which makes Larry Crowne all the more refreshing. Directed, co-written by and starring Tom Hanks, with Julia Roberts in support, it came and went in the summer of 2011, flotsam lost in the wake of Transformers 3. The few who saw it dismissed the film as the feature version of an “after-school special”, those improving TV movies inflicted on uninterested teens, who watched for a few seconds while seeking re-runs of Dark Shadows

            Hanks is the eponymous Larry, a middle-aged Californian divorcee, contented in his job as a glorified shop assistant and regular “Employee of the Month” in a hangar-sized branch of the giant U-Mart chain – until they fire him on the spurious grounds that he lacks a college degree.  Saddled with a mortgage and SUV he can no longer afford and with no skills save those gained as a cook in the US Navy, he enters the local college, hoping to re-train for better things. In the film’s first major improbability, an ingratiatingly genial dean persuades him that Economics 101 and The Art of Conversational Remarks will help achieve this aim.  

Tom Hanks and Rami Malek learning
The Art of Conversational Remarks

            However ham-handedly, this device introduces a major theme of the film, the parlous state of American education. Students flock to the economics class, taught by an eccentrically comic George Takei (Mr. Sulu from Star Trek)since his concepts promise financial success. Of no such practical value, The Art of Conversational Remarks, taught by Mercy Tainot (Roberts),can barely attract the ten students needed to make the course viable. 

A baffled Rami Malek

            Those who do sign up are the walking wounded of a culture that neglects intellectual stimulation in favour of negotiable but empty paper credentials. They include a winningly baffled Rami Malek, before his Oscar-winning stint as Freddie Mercury, playing another victim of the dean’s seductive over-selling. Others exhibit, through an encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Trek or the latest dance steps, a natural intelligence which the moribund educational system ignores.

            That system is typified by Robert’s husband (Brian Cranston), an unemployed academic who spends his days posting on Facebook and browsing internet porn sites.  Larry, by fixing the GPS system in her car, ineptly installed by Cranston, impresses Mercy with his practical smarts and unsophisticated charm. Meeting cute having been successfully achieved, romance ensues. 

Tom Hanks as the leader of the pack

            We can probably thank Hanks’ co-writer Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)  for the sub-plot of Crowne’s acceptance by a group of younger students, members of a mini-biker gang straddling Vespas, not Harleys. These scenes are a compendium of practical hints on how to survive downsizing; change your look, change your friends, dump the uneconomical house and car, and embrace the under-economy of rental accommodation, part-time work and the yard sale. 

            Reviewers judged that Hanks and Roberts hoped, with the film, to lure back a younger audience which, if it perceived them at all, did so receding in its rear-vision mirror. That may be true, but it obscures the film’s larger ambition, to urge the radical overhaul of an education system obsessed with conferring meaningless credentials at the expense of genuine enlightenment.  For his graduation test, Larry summarises his twenty years in the Navy as a kind of education by “life experience”, contrasted with classic university culture, which,  he suggests (quoting George Bernard Shaw),  “digests philosophy as folly, science into superstition and art into pedantry.” Anyone who has ever laboured in the diploma mill may experience a twinge of guilt.

            YouTube has this good copy of Larry Crowne, albeit with some discreet Arabic subtitles. Click Here to watch it.

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