Educating Tom Hanks

June 23, 2011

BEVERLY HILLS, California - Tom Hanks knows he could have turned his latest directing effort, Larry Crowne, into a real downer.

After all, it's the story of an affable, middle-aged guy who becomes the victim of downsizing and his own lack of education. Despite his success as team leader at the big-box company where he has worked since leaving the navy, Larry is let go on the pretext that his lack of a college education means he has no opportunity for advancement.

Hanks concedes there was scope here for a grimly factual documentary about the newly unemployed and unemployable in today's recession-ridden society. Or he could have delivered a movie "which, at the end of the day, is extremely depressing... so serious or hard-hitting that it offers no hope.''

Hanks's attitude is different. Why not show some light at the end of the tunnel?

With Larry Crowne, the first movie Hanks has directed since 1996, he wanted a more positive arc for his Everyman hero. As both star and director of the film opening July 1, Hanks wants to show that life is not necessarily over for Larry and his kind - that it is possible to open a new and fulfilling chapter in one's life.

He obviously feels it's worthwhile bringing it out at a time when so many Americans are experiencing economic despair. He hopes Larry Crowne will touch a positive chord.

"We are competing in a marketplace in which the thing we might have going for us is the true battle against cynicism,'' he says. "That's what Larry Crowne is about, more than anything else.''

In the screenplay, which Hanks wrote with Canada's Nia Vardalos, Larry does find that life has a second act. He registers at his local community college to further his education, and it's there that he wins acceptance into a group of scooter-riding students - free spirits who are far younger, but give him a new outlook on life. It's there, as well, that he develops a crush on his jaded teacher, played by Julia Roberts, a character who also needs to be reawakened to the possibilities of life.

"At the end of this film, Larry Crowne is living in a crappy apartment, he still has a lousy job, he can't even afford to pay the gas in his big car, and he's going to school with no real set future of what's going to happen,'' Hanks says. "But he's got this amazing new forceful presence in his life, and he can honestly say that the best thing that ever happened to him was getting fired from his job.''

So are we in fantasyland here? Is this just cinematic wishful thinking? Not according to Hanks. Stories like Larry's actually do happen in the real world: "That's what we're going for, and if we do it well enough, people will respond to it.''

Hanks's appearance today might best be described as middle-aged subdued - black shirt, black jacket, a touch of grey at the temples - but that's at variance with the boyish enthusiasm of his selling job on behalf of a movie that was first conceived six years ago, well before the recession hit America.

"We wanted to examine the theme of reinvention - not just reinvention by the way of fate dictating it, but by your own proactive place in how you move on to whatever the next chapter in your life is going to be. It really began (this way): I lose my job, I go to college, my teacher is Julia Roberts - what would happen?''

Then he and Vardalos started filling in the blanks: the reasons these people are at college in the first place, the particular issues in life they face. Hanks is fascinated by the idea that, for every individual, life should be an adventure.

"In this case, it's the adventure of what he's going to do for the rest of his life. It's not a mid-life crisis; it's a mid-life disaster... (but) Larry thinks it's the greatest thing in the world that he gets fired. He loses all his community, he possibly loses his house. That, to me, is what we started off with, and we just built on it.''

The idea always was to make Larry's story "authentic,'' which, in Hanks's vocabulary, meant convincing audiences that it's "truly possible.'' That meant no phoney, Hollywood-type contrivances in plot and situation. It meant maintaining "a delicate balance'' in presentation. It meant - in Hanks's words - "the type of movie that I'm attracted to myself, as an audience-going guy.''

However, Larry Crowne also emerges as something of a social portrait of an increasingly pluralistic American society, and, in a sense, the college that Larry attends becomes a microcosm of this society. Hanks recalls that, when he attended junior college in Ohio many years ago, "it was greatly diverse, and there was no sort of race or culture that was not represented.''

Larry Crowne has to reflect this pluralism.

"We want to reflect the world actually as it kind of looks, particularly in a community college,'' Hanks says. In fact, the college scenes were filmed at an Orange County institution that has the most diverse student body of any four- year university west of the Mississippi.

Tom Hanks makes no apologies for the time gap between directing That Thing You Do! in 1996 and now, with Larry Crowne. If he's going to direct, it needs to be something special.

"I'll tell you, it takes a lot out of you. That Thing and this, they take a long time to develop, and it just percolates in your head until you get to the point where it's - I don't want to give this up. It's like a very personal mission that you find yourself on.''

But Larry Crowne is a small movie, arriving in a crowded summer marketplace dominated by Cars 2, The Green Lantern, Super 8 and X-Men. How can Hanks and his colleagues compete with that?

"Forgive me - I haven't the slightest f---ing idea,'' he replies jovially. '' He suggests no time of the year is necessarily a good time for releasing a movie like this one. The blockbusters are no longer confined to the summer.

"It's year round. The nature of the movies is different than it was five years ago, and they're all driven by the possibilities of CGI, which means you can make anything happen on screen that you can possibly desire. That's a great brand of freedom that's given over to the filmmaker. So if you're going to try to have people talk in a room and actually reflect life as we know it, and have people recognize themselves and their own street and their own house, well, then, you're aiming for the high country, and it's a much bigger gamble.''

By Jamie Portman

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