Tom Hanks a triple threat as writer, actor, director in ‘Larry Crowne’

June 28, 2011

In the parlance of our times, Tom Hanks brings the funny. Like the most assured stand-up, he excels at creating a running stream of hilarity. Early in his career, Hanks played a comic in “Punchline” (1988), but he could have been one in real life.

In town Friday to promote his latest film “Larry Crowne,” he ran the gauntlet of media outlets and came out swinging like a Seinfeld at each stop. A clever crew from WGN-Channel 9 even set up a barrage of potential punchlines by presenting him with a walk down his own Movie Memory Lane: Staffers were dressed up as Woody from the “Toy Story” series, Capt. Miller from “Saving Private Ryan” (1997), Jim Lovell from “Apollo 13” (1995) and so forth. When he came to the guy representing Chuck from “Cast Away” (2000) — who, with his shaggy-dog beard, actually looked more like Zach Galifianakis in “The Hangover” than Hanks’ desert-isle self — he paused and deadpanned, “Where’s Hooch?”

“It was just like having my life flash before me,” Hanks quipped on the air. “In an alternate universe, look what I’ve unleashed upon humanity! It’s like, you know, whatever the bizarro version of the Justice League of America might be.”

An hour later, as he en tered his suite at the Peninsula for a chat with the Sun-Times, Hanks asked his team, “How much time do we have for this interview”? Fifteen minutes, someone replied. “Oh, let’s take 20. Because those five minutes will make all the difference between just another hotel interview and a real conversation.”

The room erupted in fresh peals of laughter as he herded his handlers out the door. Were you surprised by that “Tom Hanks, This Is Your Movie Life” ambush earlier this morning? “Oh, no, they [the media] just kind of gang up on you everywhere you go,” he said, laughing.

Besides, it served as a quick visual reminder of the many iconic characters that Hanks, 54, has introduced over the years. The downsized hero of “Larry Crowne,” which opens Friday, should join this pantheon. Along with starring, Hanks produced, co-wrote and directed the film, which reunites him with “Charlie Wilson’s War” co-star Julia Roberts.

It’s a romantic comedy with a topical theme. After Larry, a Navy veteran, is fired from his longtime job at a Wal-Mart-like retailer, ostensibly for “not having a college education,” he decides to enroll in his local community college and start over. Along the way, he finds inspiration in the form of his classmates and his professors, especially the hard-drinking and disillusioned Mercedes Tainot (Roberts).

Despite the film’s surefire pedigree, major studios rejected the project, forcing Hanks and his PlayTone production team to finance it themselves. Even though it stars two Oscar winners who also happen to be box-office champions? “That’s what I kept saying, ‘Have I explained to you that it’s me and Julia Roberts?’ When we sent the script to them, the word came back, ‘We don’t know how to make these kind of movies.’ But once we didn’t bother doing the studio thing, we didn’t have much of a problem.”

The idea of a middle-aged guy trying to reinvent himself doesn’t carry much studio appeal in the age of “Transformers.” But Hanks believes it’s important to make films about adults living up to the challenges the world presents them. “Larry did everything right. He joined the Navy to serve his country. The only thing he did wrong, he took out a loan on his house, which then went under water. He plays by the book but still ends up getting impacted by that brand of indifferent fate.

“I get a lot of credit from people who say, ‘Wow, this is really about stuff that’s going on in today’s economy.’ But it’s a personal movie, about how the economy ends up affecting people in a very personal manner.”

So personal that Hanks ended up directing it himself, making it only the second feature he has helmed, after “That Thing You Do!” (1996). As for the long gap between directorial gigs, he said, “I’m not a director. I read scripts as an actor. What part is in it for me, and what is the theme they’re examining, and how well do they do it? The movies I’ve directed have been very personal missions that completely came out of my own company and my own head and reached a point of where it was like a fever, I had to do it.”

That’s a quality he shares with many other directors. And the sunny optimism of “Larry Crowne” invites comparisons to the films of Frank Capra, the ultimate champion of the little guy. Hanks chortles at the suggestion. “Beware of anything that lays claim to being Capra-esque,” he said. “Rather than his ongoing optimism, it’s a lack of cynicism. Larry never thinks, ‘Oh, it’s all going to work out, if you try hard and pursue your dreams.’ He had tried hard, he had pursued his dreams, and he still got screwed. But Larry refuses to give in to cynicism. That takes a degree of courage.”

By the end, Larry has found himself. “If you asked Larry, he’d say, ‘Wow, the best thing that ever happened to me was getting fired.’ The times I’ve really found myself engrossed in films are the ones that end at a place that’s actually a new beginning for the rest of the story. You feel as though everyone’s in a better place than they were at the beginning.”

Just like Larry Crowne.

By Laura Emerick Staff

Source : Chicago Sun Times