What We Can Learn About Starting Over From Larry Crowne
I'm not sure why the funny, uplifting Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts romantic comedy Larry Crowne didn't sell anywhere near as many tickets as the latest Transformers flick when both opened this weekend at the nation's multiplexes. After all, when you think about it, both movies are about midlife reinvention.
In the case of Transformers, Optimus Prime and other giant robots from the planet Cybertron, whom we learn have been around at least since the Kennedy Administration, continually reinvent themselves by rearranging their mechanical body parts and turning into cars or trucks. Now, I don't have anything against that segment of you out there who happen to like giant robots, or perhaps even are one. But for me, the predicament of fiftysomething human Larry Crowne, portrayed by Hanks (who also co-wrote and directed), is much easier to identify with.
He doesn't have any super powers to prevent his marriage from breaking up, or to keep his employer from firing him from his dead-end job in discount retail because he lacks the college diploma required for promotion to management. Unlike the autobots, when downsized, Larry is forced to dismantle himself and replace his missing parts, and it's a lot more painful and awkward.
But Larry, like a lot of the boomers I know who've been rocked by the economic downturn, just refuses to give up. Drawing on his experience as a cook in the U.S. Navy, he takes a grill job in a coffee shop, and enrolls at a local community college, with the aim of getting the educational credential prospective employers view as so crucial. In due time -- this is a romantic comedy, remember -- Larry is befriended by a spirited younger classmate (portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who plays Henry Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle. She updates his wardrobe, rearranges his furniture, and introduces him to a new circle of friends who boost his confidence. They, in turn, push Larry to woo smart and pretty but dyspeptic and cynical speech class teacher Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who is struggling to extricate herself from a train-wreck of a marriage.
I won't spoil the rest for you. But I will say that Larry Crowne isn't just a pleasant way to spend a couple of air-conditioned hours on a hot July afternoon or evening. It's actually a movie from which we boomers can get a few useful pointers on midlife reinvention. Here are a few of the takeaways:
1. What we think of as weaknesses in our resumes often are really strengths, once we understand what we gained from them. While some of his managerial higher-ups sneer at Larry for having spent 20 years as a lowly ship's cook, he got a chance to travel the world and contemplate its wonders. But it wasn't until his college speech class forced him to draw on his past that he came to appreciate what his experiences gave him.
2. To connect with younger people, be who you are. When Larry shows up on campus, he's got impossibly-square-looking clothes and a slightly awkward manner. But his younger, hipper classmates gravitate to him all the same because Larry comes off as utterly genuine and sincere. As one of his new friends tells him, "You are way cooler than you appear."
3. World-weariness can be a millstone around your neck. It's hard to imagine Julia Roberts seeming unattractive, but her character, Mercedes, is tough to take for the first half of the film, when she's dripping with disdain for her low-achieving pupils and bitter about her soon-to-be ex-spouse's descent into sloth. With the help of a supportive friend, played adeptly by onetime seventies Blaxploitation bombshell Pam Grier, Mercedes finally stops drinking and loses both the husband and the attitude. Suddenly, we can see that she's actually a talented teacher -- and a still-radiant middle-aged beauty.
4. Looking a little silly is an essential stage of personal growth. Larry can't afford parking and putting gasoline in his old SUV, so he trades his flat-panel TV for a second-hand, slightly rusty motor scooter at his neighbor's yard sale. His first attempt to ride it sends him sprawling into a card table full of knickknacks. Eventually, he gets the hang of it and develops an invigorating new pastime in the process.
5. Don't tuck in your polo shirt. As Larry's makeover maven explains to him, this makes you look like a plainclothes cop. And even if you actually are one, you don't want to blow your cover. As Larry discovers, an untucked, loose-fitting button-down shirt over a dark T-shirt is appropriate for just about any occasion.
More movie notes:
Moviefone blogger Gary Susman writes this interesting commentary on how Larry Crowne might have become the darling of film critics and a surprise box-office smash if it had been an indie film featuring two lesser-known actors.
Here's my previous review of another great summer movie, Midnight in Paris.
If you're looking for a good video to rent, check out Hanks' previous directorial effort, the charming 1996 coming-of-age music comedy That Thing You Do.
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