Even as I enjoyed the Tom Hanks–Julia Roberts comedy Larry Crowne, I found it easy to understand why its trailer is so, so lame—the tagline might as well be “Come Smile Awhile.” The cutesy bits of business need the edgier context of the film. Hanks, who wrote it with Nia Vardalos and directed, plays Larry, a cheerful, innocuous fellow who loses his job at a big-box store (“U-Mart”), can’t scrounge up another, and decides to take college courses—one of them in public speaking, taught by the bitter, brittle Mercedes Tainot (Roberts). The film is sometimes gentle to the point of blandness, but it’s never flimsy. It’s actually one of the subtler portraits I’ve seen of middle-class life in the age of corporate capitalism, and of people who survive without becoming zombie wage-slaves or pinko malcontents (not that some pinko malcontents aren’t convincing). The movie earns its hopeful vision.
Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, brought Vardalos’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding to the screen, and Larry Crowne (which features Wilson, as a chillingly chipper bank officer) centers on families, biological and surrogate, the kind that keep you warm in a mercenary and isolating culture. Rocked by the price of gas for his SUV, Larry buys a vintage scooter from his neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) who, with his wife (Taraji P. Henson), maintains an ongoing lawn sale. So buying and selling can be neighborly. The bike makes Larry part of a larger community, a darling scooter gang led by fellow student Talia (the vivacious Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who redesigns Larry’s dweeby wardrobe. Larry Crowne is practically a personal-finance primer—and wouldn’t you know that Larry’s other course is Economics 1 (taught by the hammily stentorian George Takei), whose textbook inspires him to dump the overmortgaged house and live more lightly on the Earth.
For many viewers, of course, the suspense will come not from waiting for Larry to balance his checkbook but for Roberts’s big, dour mouth to quiver … and twist … and then … any time now … here it comes … Julia smiles!!! And Julia is wonderful, as she often is when she plays uptight. Watch her face as she enters her first class and sees nine—not the state-mandated minimum of ten—students: It’s the relief of a sourpuss who truly would rather not deal with other human beings, especially in the morning with a hangover. Mercedes is also fed up with her indolent, porn-loving blogger husband, played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. The Internet, blogging: These aren’t healthy things in the personal-touch world of Larry Crowne. Mercedes needs a meetup. And as she watches Larry speak to the class, her long legs angled demurely under her desk, she begins to be interested.
It’s too bad that Larry, as played by Hanks, isn’t especially interesting. In his U-Mart job, he seems slow, like Forrest Gump’s slightly smarter brother. But then Hanks settles into a groove of easy acceptance. Is he so self-effacing because he’s the director and wants to throw the spotlight on his leading lady and multiracial ensemble? Or does he think Larry’s lack of remarkableness will make him more “relatable”? I almost wish Larry Crowne had been made by someone else—Jonathan Demme, say, a producer on Hanks’s directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, and someone who’d have pushed him to be faster on the uptake. Hanks’s quickness is his gift, the thing that made him a star, but over the years he has taken too much off his fastball. Bump up Larry ’s IQ by twenty points, and Larry Crowne would be an event instead of a pleasant humanist comedy that’s also a paean to dullness.
You get a bad feeling early in Project Nim, the brilliant, traumatizing documentary by James Marsh (Man on Wire). Nim was a chimpanzee who—I can’t bring myself to use “that”—in 1973 became a test subject for Columbia psychology professor Herbert Terrace. The prof speculated that if a chimp were raised like a child and taught sign language, a door would be opened into the animal mind, to chimp thoughts, emotions, even dreams. Given the nature of a chimp brain, Terrace’s ambitions seem a tad unrealistic, but the problem is not that he was wrong—it’s that when he was wrong he lost interest along with funding. Terrace returned Nim, who’d spent years romping around people’s houses and had learned 125 signs, to a cage in the lab where he’d been snatched from his mother. To the people involved, Nim was a science project, not a damaged soul.
“Project” is a verb, too, and the bitter humor and sadness of Project Nim come from hearing how humans projected like mad on the poor chimp. His first human “mother,” Stephanie LaFarge, breast-fed Nim, let him puff on a joint, and worried about language constraining his animal nature. (You want to slap your forehead.) Taken from LaFarge and her family, Nim spent his days with a nice, pretty student who inexplicably went to bed with Professor Terrace and then, explicably, decamped. Later on, Nim bit through the cheek of another gal and, amid the blood and gore, signed, “I’m sorry.” And that was before the cages, the horrific NYU lab, and the animal refuge funded by Cleveland Amory that turned out to be worst of all.
Marsh’s documentaries are inspired fusions of content and style, and here, the artistry intensifies the pain. The reenactments are so convincing it’s a shock to see actors’ names in the credits—not to mention names of animatronic designers! Project Nim is emotionally exhausting, and while it’s tempting to label Terrace the villain, no one is totally bad or good—even Nim’s best bud, the Deadhead Bob Ingersoll, smoked dope with him. Nim opened a door, all right, but to the human, not animal, mind. And we’re some crazy species.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that Nim went to a Columbia University lab after the experiment. It was actually a NYU lab.