The Myths of Good and Bad
There are few things I dislike more in the popular film discussion than the notion of “guilty pleasure” movies. To put it simply, if you enjoy watching a film, then that makes it good! You don’t need to qualify it with some “I know it’s bad, but…”
I’m not really even into the idea of separating films into overall quality distinctions. Even year-end lists just breed more argumentation and disdain while putting unfair expectations on the movies themselves. In the end, there are just too many different ways to evaluate too many movies. There are purposeful, soul-rendering masterpieces. There are brilliantly constructed films that say things I very much disagree with. There are poorly made films that are made with earnest heart. There are cynically made films with little to no redeeming value. And all of these films evoke different feelings as they show their relative shades of value.
Plus, I’ve never gotten much enjoyment out of looking down on or making fun of “bad” movies. Too many people work way too hard on them. I can’t help but feel for all the people behind and in front of the camera. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with the way we talk about movies. For instance, the joking in Mystery Science Theater 3000 works so damn well because it often becomes this kind of meta-narrative along with the movies themselves. And while it sometimes slides into “Fuck this movie!” territory, the conversations in How Did This Get Made? are most entertaining when they are wondering about the odd thought process behind films like Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992).
Which brings me to my central point: I may not like making fun of bad movies… but I’m fascinated by bizarre movies. And I’m not so much talking about off-the-wall, gonzo B-movies or low-budget horror or the Shaw Brothers (though I do some of like those). Nor am I talking about the oddball, self-important trainwrecks like Collateral Beauty or The Book of Henry. What I’m most interested in is the nutty eccentricity of well-intentioned films like 1999’s Simply Irresistible (which features a magic crab) and the surprising earnestness of a cult classic like The Miami Connection. Still, among all these examples, the one I’ve become most fascinated with is a film you would never think of, nor likely remember. But it’s one of the most subtly bizarre films I’ve ever seen.
I’m talking, of course, about Larry Crowne.
The Talented Mr. Hanks
Let’s get one thing straight: Tom Hanks is a national treasure.
He grew from a lovable, wide-eyed goofball into one of our great actors, a man capable of embodying aching vulnerability, aw-shucks modesty and flailing comic indignation. He can even stand in for the paragon of decency. All of which is only made better by his magnetic real-life personality. Hanks is frequently regarded as the ultimate talk-show guest or SNL host because he’s conveys utter realness with a genuine desire to entertain. And it’s not just him being good at appearances. Literally every single person I know who has ever worked or crossed paths with him has had a wonderful experience. This is not to imply he’s some kind of perfect saintly figure. No, what makes Hanks so endearing is how comfortable he is being “normal” while being kind, self-facing, and intimate all at the same time.
But that leads to a fascinating question: “What does an artist with this kind of personality have to say?” A lot of Hanks’ producing work is driven by his fascination with the annals of history and times of great adversity. He’s produced both documentary and narrative work on space exploration, frontier discovery and the struggles of the myths of Americana.
The first project he wrote and directed? That was 1996’s endlessly catchy That Thing You Do!, which marries his historical infatuation with the world of showbiz, chronicling the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder ’60s rock band (the title song itself is great). So why did it take him until 2011 to make his next film? I’m not entirely sure. But when he finally did, it seemed like the right kind of territory. Co-writing with Nia Vardalos, of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, Hanks took aim at a slice-of-life comedy about a likable everyman getting laid off from a Walmart-type store and having to go back to community college. And yet…
Larry Crowne is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen.
Though not obviously so. On the surface, its tone is gentle, sincere and, like Crowne, achingly dorky (it’s basically a walking dad joke). However, its most telling details rest in its construction, starting with the movie’s basic scenario: Larry gets fired for not having gone to college, which would just be one of those movie-bound leaps of logic, but there’s no real reason for this expressed in the story. It has all these big corporate notions of “downsizing,” but it’s confused by the fact that the scene in which he is fired is filled with tone-deaf, brazenly cruel jokes from some egomaniacal bosses (as the other bosses just sit there). So many of the laughs feel like they were written for some exaggerated satire, but they’re brought to life in an ambling, light-hearted, sincere movie. It’s like it’s caught in this constant state of “PG bluntness,” with references to “beaver fever” and characters talking about “big knockers.” And the jokes feel incredibly disconnected from the characters themselves. Nine times out of 10, I find myself asking, Wait, why did they just say that?!
But the particular problem with that goes deeper. The character behavior isn’t just wacky—it feels like everyone is in their own (very different) movie. Which I get is part of the intent of this oddball cast of supporting characters. But there’s no true north or grounding influence to their behavior. Ensemble comedies alway needs the surrogate figure, like Judd Hirsch in Taxi or Joel McHale in Community, to contextualize behavior. Ostensibly, that should be Larry, but he’s just taking it all in with no real commentary or response. He just has this vacuous, glazed-over, accepting smile. Which is even weirder for a movie with a murderer’s row of performers.
Seriously, look at this list: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Pam Grier, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Malcolm Barrett, George Takei, Rob Riggle, Randall Park, Rami Malek, Rita Wilson and Wilmer Valderrama. And they’re given almost nothing to do. Do you have any idea how odd it is to see these amazing actors grasping at straws? Or trying to make a bad PG-blunt joke work? Or trying to churn out some kind of performance from something with no real purpose? It just ends up exacerbating the idea that everyone’s in their own movie because nothing feels directed to a coherent point. It’s like they just kept going with whatever “feels” funny.
Furthering the disconnect is the fact that even though this is technically a movie about economic hardship, it seems to have no idea what that actually looks like. Larry works the floor at Umart and yet has a gorgeous house in Los Angeles (post-divorce even!). His neighbor, played by Cedric, won $500,000, which in no way would cover the cost of his house—also, what’s up with the perpetual yard sale he’s having? It just all feels off. And it leads us to remember that even though Hanks is emotionally grounded, it’s been 40 years since he was actually middle-class and now has no idea what working-class life actually looks like. At one point Larry gets a job at a diner, but that could barely pay his rent, let alone pay back hundreds of thousands on a mortgage.
I could happily hand-wave all this away. After all, these kinds of exaggerations exist in a lot of movies. But they exist in Larry Crowne in such stark, pronounced way. His house is beautiful. When his fellow students look inside, they’re like “Yuck!” and give it a makeover, and I literally can’t tell the difference. Everything feels so shiny and clean and beautiful. Especially the people. We know Julia Roberts can glam down and kill it as Erin Brockovich, but everything about her presentation here feels wrong. She’s a community college teacher who is walking around and glowing like Julia Roberts. And it all keeps fostering the film’s deep pastiche of “unreality.” Which would be fine if this movie were an escapist fable. But it keeps going back to stories of the downtrodden and emphasizing what “normal life” is like after an economic collapse.
I mean it when I say there’s almost no real conflict in Larry Crowne. Nor is there any dramatic thrust or structure to much of anything. It’s one giant “and then this happens.” One friend had a theory that every single person in this movie is an alien trying to mimic human behavior, but doesn’t understand a single cue. Everyone’s just nuts for Larry. I’m not kidding. Every woman in this movie is super into Larry Crowne. He seems bashfully ignorant of this, but there’s no ignoring how many misunderstandings arise from women giving 55-year-old Tom Hanks goo-goo eyes. Which probably makes sense for a film that also features a lot of his butt (always covered, but often protruding when he bends over). There are infinitely more weird moments in this film that I could talk about: The sudden snapping. The attitude of the scooter riding gang. The bizarre speech exercises and the discussion of their meaning. But I would rather you experience them yourself.
Wait, you think I should watch this movie?
Absolutely. From what I’ve described, you might imagine that this movie is bad or boring or unwatchable, but it’s not at all. The result is something fascinating. I get how most people shrugged it off for its pleasant, genial shine, but give it a fixed eye, and it can foster this constant state of amusement. You watch, your mouth agape, constantly squeaking, “Wait, what?” All while it continues to invite your curiosity about why these creative decisions were made in the first place. It all feeds the central question of “why make that choice?” It reminds us that movies are hard to make. So much of Larry Crowne, which is absolutely dripping in good intentions, reminds us of all the hard-earned lessons that actually go into crafting functional, entertaining stories. In a weird way, it is exactly the kind of movie I most advocate watching—because it invites so much thought and discussion.
Which brings us to the weird way Larry Crowne came into my life…
The Annual Tradition
My friends Andrew and Nick have been watching Larry Crowne every Thanksgiving for the past six years.
Yes, you read that correctly. “Crownesgiving” is now an annual holiday. How did it come to be? Andrew explains, “It was actually when it came out on HBO Go. Nick and I watched the trailer and became weirdly obsessed with its seemingly milquetoast quality. And so we just wanted to see it.” (I should mention Andrew watches pretty much everything).
He goes on, “We didn’t mean for it to be the night before Thanksgiving—that’s just when it lined up. But we were totally caught off guard by all the bizarre behavior. And at some point I made the joke about how we were celebrating ‘Crownesgiving.’ Then next year rolled around, and we joked that we should do it again. And since we like to run jokes into the ground, we actually did it. More people came. And then it just ballooned from there.”
Now it’s a fairly big event for which a ton of people get together. Everyone grabs some drinks, but it’s not exactly a rowdy affair because it’s always about the people who have never seen it. We all sit around as they take in this bizarre, strange, genial movie. It offers a perfect forum for making jokes, and yet you can still follow along with it if you miss a beat.
Crownesgiving works. And it’s become one of my favorite nights of the year. I mean that sincerely. But, of course, when I tweeted about being excited for the event, Twitter got all Twitter and had a variety of strong reactions. And not just because some people were assuming I was being cynical or making fun of “bad movies.” One person wrote, “I think a little less of you now,” then went on to complain about how they didn’t think the movie was any good at all. These reactions show how we get so caught up in evaluating “worth” that we forget that the most important conversations about our engagement with films have nothing to do with worth at all.
Engagement is about the act of engaging with the material. The deeper you go with it, the more you get out of it. The reaction of “wait, what?” isn’t just a joke. If you think about it, it’s literally the first step of analysis. And Larry Crowne is kind of a perfect movie because it’s all about questioning that which people normally glaze right over. The movie invites you to analyze and dig into it without ever being boring or dangerous or cynical. It gets you to notice the way it does things that other movies never do (and often for good reason).
Most of all, I love Crownesgiving because it inspires so much passionate, gawking, funny conversation in its wake. There’s nothing ironic about this reality. It’s even oddly celebratory. Which is why I think you, too, should watch Larry Crowne this Thanksgiving. And you don’t have to call it a guilty pleasure.
Because there’s nothing to feel guilty about.