In Larry Crowne Tom Hanks plays the title character an affable middle-aged floor manager at a big box department store who loses his job because he never went to college. Lacking a secondary income source (his wife divorced him a few years prior) and underwater on his mortgage he sets out to find new employment but is met with universal rejection. If any of these developments affect him in any significant way you can scarcely tell from his countenance: A plaintive drive home and the occasional watering of the eyes are the only indications of any kind of turmoil within.
All of which hints that Larry Crowne which Hanks also directed and co-wrote (with Nia Vardalos) might be one of those films in which a repressed and emotionally stunted individual gradually comes to face the pain he’s buried enjoys an epiphany or two and lets go of it all in a grand (and presumably Oscar-worthy) catharsis. (That or he shoots up a Dairy Queen.) Only it isn’t. It’s a breezy genial comedy about a guy who enrolls in a community college joins a crew of scooter-riders and hits it off with his speech teacher.
The teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts) is everything Larry isn’t: dry cynical tired. She’s lost her passion for education and is mired in a toxic marriage with a noxious layabout (Bryan Cranston) whose novel-writing efforts are really just a cover for an internet porn obsession. There’s no reason the two should connect romantically other than the fact that he’s Tom Hanks and she’s Julia Roberts. This appraisal might as well extend to the film as a whole which skates by lazily on the charm and charisma of its two stars never deigning to proffer anything more substantial than their adorable mugs.
Among a rote and forgettable assemblage of supporting characters the only one who manages to register at all is Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a coquettish free-spirited fellow-student who makes Larry her personal project re-arranging his living room upgrading his wardrobe and coaxing him to be more adventurous. Why she bothers to do any of this is never explained. Is she luring him into a shady business scheme? Is she the recruiter for an apocalyptic cult? An insatiable schlub fetish perhaps? Without any discernible motive we’re left to assume that she takes to him simply because he’s Tom Hanks. I mean who wouldn’t want to ride scooters with Tom Hanks? (I’ll tell you who: Al Qaida.)
Larry Crowne is a film I desperately wanted to like. Certainly its central message of perseverance and optimism in the face of hardship is a noble one. But aside from its two stars a few laughs and a handful of endearing moments there’s precious little to it. By the end of the film I felt like I barely knew any of these people despite having spent the last 90 minutes with them. Nor did I particularly want to know them. Except for Tom and Julia of course. Aren’t they just wonderful?
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The heartbreak of illegal immigration is vividly displayed in this poignant story of nine year old Carlos (Adrian Alonso) a boy living in Mexico with his grandmother while his mother (Kate del Castillo) works as an illegal domestic in Los Angeles trying to make enough money to send home so the son she has been separated from can live a good life--even if it means being without her. When the grandmother suddenly dies Carlos decides to cross the border and look for mom. As his journey continues he encounters a woman (America Ferrera) and her brother (Jesse Garcia) who make tuition money taking babies into the U.S. In this instance she decides to help smuggle Carlos across by hiding him in her van. Once he lands in Tuscon he meets a sympathetic middle- aged migrant worker named Enrique (Eugenio Derbez) who accompanies him to East L.A. Once there they try to locate his mother--their only clue being a vague description of the area around a pay phone she used in her weekly calls home to Carlos. The film which is shot mostly in Spanish with some English language scenes as well offers great big screen opportunities to some of Mexico’s biggest television stars including telenovela favorite Kate del Castillo. She delivers a moving performance as a mother living separated by borders with her only son but living “under the same moon.” The film really belongs however to young Alonso--a natural in front of the cameras who impressed American audiences as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas’ son in The Legend of Zorro but breaks out here as the determined Carlos. Both create a touching mother-son relationship even though they are never in any scenes together. Also playing against type is superstar Derbez unquestionably one of Latin America’s most popular actors who develops a winning chemistry with Alonso making every moment of their screen time count. Ugly Betty’s Ferrera also turns up for some effective moments including a heart-stopping sequence in which she is questioned by border guards while the van carrying the hidden Carlos is searched. Although she has made some award winning shorts Under the Same Moon represents the first feature length film for Mexican-born Patricia Riggen. She succeeds on all levels emphasizing the characters in the story over the potentially political hot button topic of immigration which her film so eloquently humanizes. Working with screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos the two women give urgency to the tragic separation of mother and son caught between two disparate cultures. Given the time restraints and low budget Riggen’s command of the camera is impressive particularly in the inventive and almost spiritual ways she manages to bring mother and son together on screen even though they never share a shot. Use of music is also hugely effective with Carlos Silotto’s melodic score recalling a similar film about a young dreamer Cinema Paradiso. Ultimately though Under the Same Moon lives or dies with the actors and Riggen’ spot-on casting decisions--particularly in the case of Alonso--really lift it to new levels. Most of the actors have extensive TV followings and Riggen knew by casting them she would risk the wrath of Mexican film critics who uniformly look down on television. Doesn’t matter. Under the Same Moon has universal appeal and should find approving audiences around the world.