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‘Crowne’ And ‘Transformers’: Fitting For The Fourth

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 1, 2011

The July 4th weekend brings textbook Hollywood counter-programming. On one side of the multiplex you’ll find the teen-male-oriented blockbuster franchise sequel Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in which giant mutating robots put their fists through one another amid crumbling skyscrapers.

Over in the non-3D wing is the quiet grown-up comedy Larry Crowne, in which 50-something Tom Hanks as a laid-off megastore manager sorta-almost-romances 40-something Julia Roberts as his married community college professor. The choice is stark. But I think both movies give a surprising amount of pleasure.

“What? You like a movie by Michael Bay?” Yes, though Bay does make it easy to hate him. He’s a trophy director: the hottest actresses, the hottest cars, the hottest cars that transform into the hottest robots thanks to the hottest FX … The second Transformers movie was an overblown hash. But this one, once you get past Bay’s trademark sexism and gigantism, is a stupendous piece of blockbusting.

There’s a lot of plot, but it comes down to the bad Transformers, the Decepticons from the planet Cybertron, attempting to enslave the population of Earth, hitherto protected by the good Transformers, the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, friend to earthling Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf.

It takes a while to get oriented. The simplest dialogue scenes are confusing because Bay shoots nothing simply. And he’ll rub some folks the wrong way by introducing his new leading lady, lingerie model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, via the backs of her thighs. But once the humans and Autobots go up against the Decepticons in a devastated Chicago, the movie is like War of the Worlds on steroids. The vistas induce vertigo, and as the camera plunges after our paratrooper heroes down massive skyscrapers toward robots mashing one another’s heads and a giant Decepticon octopus with incinerating tentacles, you’ll feel the elating transformative power — of Hollywood money.

Larry Crowne is low-tech, its characters human-scaled. Tom Hanks wrote it with Nia Vardolos, whose My Big Fat Greek Wedding he produced with his wife, Rita Wilson. It’s a family affair and the movie is about family — warm surrogate families in a cold capitalist climate.

Hanks’ Larry Crowne has been laid off from a big-box store because he never went to college — he spent 20 years as a Navy cook — and can’t advance. So he enrolls in a public speaking course taught by Julia Roberts’ bitter, brittle Mercedes Tainot, who’s getting fed up with the Internet porn habit of her indolent husband, played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston with a full head of hair. When Larry pulls up beside her car on his vintage scooter, he leans over her and does what her husband can’t: fix her car’s GPS device.

“How long was that broken?” he asks, as he dials away on her car’s dash.

“Ever since my husband installed it,” she says.

“It’s all fixed now,” he says. “What are you going to make us do today in class, hmm?”

“You’ll just have to find out,” she says.

He hops back on his scooter. “Follow me,” he shouts.

“Interesting,” she murmurs.

That “interesting” is … interesting, because as Hanks plays him, Larry isn’t especially interesting. I’m almost sorry he directed Larry Crowne, since he’s so self-effacing. Another director might have pushed him to be faster on the draw, less blandly accepting. But the movie does have a generous feel, happy and bustling and multicultural.

The message is explicit. Capitalism can be cutthroat, but you can stay afloat and not hurt others. Larry’s second college course is economics taught by the hammily stentorian George Takei, who helps him figure out how to get by on what he earns. His friends live lightly, in supportive communities, among them Cedric the Entertainer as a neighbor with an ongoing lawn sale, and a vivacious actress named Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a fellow scooter-rider who makes it her project to dress Larry better — and then opens her own second-hand store. It’s very cozy, and how badly off can Larry be with Julia Roberts, always and forever a movie star, coming to dinner? But Roberts is wonderful, as she often is playing characters for whom that wide Julia smile comes hard.

There’s something fitting about Larry Crowne and Transformers opening July 4th weekend. Both are about threats to American decency — Decepticons, heartless employers — and people who make war or cultivate inner peace to keep from being enslaved. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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