If one takes a nice marinara analogy for film, it would work something along these lines: You have your main ingredient, tomatoes, the expected substance of the sauce, which could stand as your cast and script. To this you would add complimentary flavors, basil, onion, garlic, some salt, a touch of pepper — your camera work, angles, art direction, you get the idea; and then, maybe something a bit stronger, some fiery habeneros, maybe, or a good couple of fingers of a strong porter, something, in other words, that offsets the rest of the dish, antagonizing the flavors, if you will, making the resulting experience memorable. Simply put, if you put Tom Hanks’ new film into a sauce, the result would be so bland and flavorless Olive Garden would be ashamed to serve it.
It’s not, of course, that the film isn’t well-meaning: In fact, that’s entirely its problem. The story, about a happy, eager recently unemployed middle-aged man (Hanks) who decides to better himself by going to a local community college, is so well-meaning and carefully nonconfrontational it almost serves no purpose whatsoever. Ignoring the fact that we’ve seen Hanks and Julia Roberts in similar roles so many times in the past, the character construction, from a script attributed to Hanks and Mia Vardolos, is so vapid and surface it’s as if you’re watching a particularly slight Hallmark Presents production.
Consider that Larry, recently divorced and cruelly laid off by the big box store he so happily devoted his life to for many years, suffers for approximately 12 seconds of screen time (we see him sitting forlornly on his bed), before he picks himself up, hits the pavement and just as quickly discovers the magic of education. He hasn’t even gotten off his scooter (don’t ask) at his new school before he’s met Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the mother of all plot devices, who instantly, inexplicably takes a liking to the inoffensive Larry and remakes his life in a matter of hours, hooking him up with her friends, one of whom happens to be a hairstylist, rearranging the feng shui in his cluttered house and giving him an entirely new wardrobe.
You know what’s coming the second you see the movie marquee, but still, Julia Roberts, who plays a disengaged, dour professor of some kind of speech communication, married to a lazy, good-for-nothing blogger (Bryan Cranston who should have his agent decapitated), falls for kind, innocent Larry and we’re further off into the kind of nonsense dreamland fantasy that Vardolos once made a killing on with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The depressing thing isn’t that the film tries for so little, it’s that it was made by a talent like Hanks, whose previous directorial effort That Thing You Do remains compulsively watchable, who could, quite literally make any thing he wanted. Given that much Hollywood power — and there are precious few who have it — couldn’t he have tried just a little harder to produce something that singe your tastebuds?
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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