Monday, June 20, 2011

Larry Crowne

Genre: Comedy/Drama
Premise: A man in his 50s is laid off from his long-time job, forcing him to enroll in college for the first time.
About: You know Tom Hanks the actor. But do you know Tom Hanks…THE WRITER!? Yes, Tom Hanks scripted today’s screenplay, Larry Crowne, and used that credit to somehow finagle a lead role in the film. Dammit that nepotism. He also got his golfing buddy Julia Roberts to join him (they’re not really golfing buddies. I made that up). Sensing that maybe his script wasn’t up to snuff, he recruited his producing partner on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos, to come in and give the script a polish. Larry Crowne hits theaters July 1st.
Writer: Tom Hanks (with help from Nia Vardalos)
Details: 117 pages – November 2009 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I’m an official card-carrying member of the “Tom Hanks Can Do No Wrong” Club. Part of the reason I think Hanks has been so successful in his career is that, unlike most actors, he not only understands character, he understands STORY. He knows how to pick material better than just about everyone out there. Because of this, you’d think Hanks would be a good candidate to write a screenplay. If he understands the two most important factors that go into writing a script (character and story), why shouldn’t he be able to write one?

Well, the more I study and appreciate this craft, the more I come to the conclusion that you need to DEDICATE yourself to screenwriting to be good at it. Yeah sure, every once in awhile a neophyte writer gets lucky. But most of the time, you gotta know this world inside out to write something great. As valid as Tom Hanks attempts with Larry Crowne are, he’s not a full-time writer. And that shows up in almost every facet of the script.

Larry Crowne works at a Costco-like store called Unimart. He’s one of their best employees. One of their happiest employees. And one of their most well-liked employees. So far, sounds like a Tom Hanks film. But with the economy slumping, Unimart has to downsize. And when management is figuring out who to fire, they realize that Larry’s never been to college, and therefore can never be eligible for a promotion. Larry is given the old “Clean Up on Aisle 27” order, and just like that, he’s out on the street.

After freaking out about house payments and interviewing for every job in the city, Larry realizes that his only real shot at getting a job again is going back to college. So he enlists at a local community college where he takes a handful of courses, highlighted by a public speaking class headed up by the Queen Bitch of the school, Mercedes Tainot.

Mercedes is angry. Scary. Pissy. Bitter. She’s not a nice gal. And she has good reason. She graduated from prestigious Vasser, yet she’s teaching at a dried up third rate community college. Not only that, but her husband sits at home all day, running his “blog” and surfing porn. Please, somebody kill her now.

While this would seem to indicate the beginning of a Larry/Mercedes courtship, Mercedes actually disappears from the script for awhile, while Larry befriends one of his fellow-students, the rebellious Talia, who surrounds herself with admirers and runs a local scooter gang. She recruits Larry into the gang and pretty soon they’re hanging out non-stop, despite Talia’s surprisingly chill boyfriend reminding Larry that he’s the man of the family.

Eventually, Larry starts chipping away at Mercedes’ rough exterior. He begins excelling in her class. He gets a part-time job. And he realizes that everything’s going to be okay. And that – my friends – is Larry Crowne in a nutshell.

This is actually a good idea for a movie – and a topical one at that. A laid-off 50-something is forced to go back to college. There’s potential for both comedy and drama in that premise. But Larry Crowne never really explores that potential, instead preferring to zip in and out of several disconnected storylines, unfortunately getting lost in the process.

Let’s start with the details. This is something I’m becoming more and more aware of that separates pros from beginners. Beginners don’t think the details of their screenplay have to make all that much sense. As long as there’s a vague understanding of what’s going on, they feel they’re doing their job. Nothing could be further from the truth. When details are mushy, when the peripherals are unclear, it’s like putting a foggy window between your story and your reader. Yeah, they can see everything, but ultimately they’re squinting the whole time, trying to figure out what the hell is what.

What is Larry Crowne really doing here? Is he trying to get a college degree to get back in the job market? If so, why is he only taking three classes at a low-level community college? Is that really going to impress an employer more than a 20 year job at Unimart? And why, of these three classes that he’s taking, would one of them be a public speaking class? I think someone points out that this class is necessary because it will help him in interviews or something.

Um, what?

If you’re going to build your entire premise around your 50-something hero going back to school, then you have to make it real. You have to commit to it. We as an audience have to believe that this is going to improve his life. Taking three classes at a lame community college is about as convincing a career move as sitting at home and watching Maury Povich reruns.

Further muddying the waters is the lack of a cohesive time-frame. This is why ticking time bombs are so important. They frame your story for you. I’m not sure if Larry is taking only these three courses. If he’s planning on a full 2 year course load. If he’s using this to eventually transfer to a major university. What’s the overall plan here? None of this is ever explained! Which makes everything in the movie feel unconvincing.

The script also had a strange approach to its main romantic plot. It starts off focusing on Talia, the scooter-scurrying Queenpin. And then about 60% of the way in, it anoints Mercedes as the female lead, which forces us to completely re-evaluate the story.

In fact, we’re never quite sure what Mercedes is doing here. She makes this grand entrance as a supremely bitter bitch, and then she’s gone for like 30 pages. Every once in awhile we’ll get a quick scene or two with her and her husband, but then she’s stashed away in a box for another 20 pages.

And that’s a shame, because Mercedes is by far the most interesting thing about this story. In fact, if this movie was about her, it would be much better. She’s the one arcing. She’s the one learning the most about life. I would’ve had more Mercedes in this movie and I would’ve had more scenes between Mercedes and Larry. That’s when the script is at its best.

My biggest problem with Larry Crowne though is that there are no stakes to the story. We never truly believe that Larry Crowne is in any trouble. Yeah he’s lost his job and he’s about to lose his house. But there’s this pervasive feeling throughout the script that everything’s going to be okay. Even his friendship/relationship with Taken Talia is easy-breezy. The boyfriend actually comes to Larry early on and says (paraphrasing), “I know you’re going to fall for her. But please respect that she’s mine.” If the boyfriend is already on to Larry, how are we supposed to fear that Larry will be caught? I was never worried for Larry. Not once.

And because I’m piling on, here’s one more question I’d like to pose. How does a man who has made 20-30 million dollars a year for fifteen years have any inkling of what it’s like to struggle? What it’s really like for the average Joe out there to lose his job? I don’t say this in a ‘how dare you’ way. I’m genuinely interested in how someone in that position could ever understand real 'holy shit I'm one month away from being homeless' struggle. And I think that ultimately shows through in Larry Crowne. Larry Crowne is never in any danger because Tom Hanks has never been in any danger.

There was some cute stuff here and there in Crowne. Talia was a fun character. The scooter gang had some giggle-worthy moments. And the late-script stuff with Mercedes bordered on great. But it was too little, too late. Larry Crowne didn’t have the depth or the focus or the ambition required to pull this idea off.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Get into all of your main story threads as quickly as possible. Remember, you don’t have a lot of time in a screenplay. You can’t afford to drag any of your main threads along. Get them started early so you can explore them to their fullest. Larry Crowne took its time with the Mercedes Tainot plot and, as a result, was forced to cram the bulk of it into the third act. It feels rushed because it is rushed. And this is due specifically to the writer taking way too casual of an approach to the thread early on.