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Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks, and the Common Man

posted: 7.14.11 by Jack Solomon

My cue for today’s post comes from a blog post by Steven Zeitchick entitled “Fourth of July Puzzle: Are America and Tom Hanks Out of Step?” Zeitchick’s post concerned the opening weekend box-office failure of Hanks’s new movie Larry Crowne, a failure made all the more interesting by the fact that Julia Roberts also stars in the film. With such star power, the movie’s disappointment at the box office is particularly striking, and Zeitchick suggests, puzzling:

Larry Crowne, after all, had two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood history. Over the past quarter-century, Hanks and Roberts have accounted for nearly two dozen movies that grossed at least $100 million and defined the culture to boot, from Forrest Gump to Erin Brockovich, Cast Away to Pretty Woman. And yet here they were, together, struggling to out-open Hall Pass and Jumping the Broom.

Zeitchick’s solution to the puzzle is twofold: first, he observes, star power is waning in Hollywood and is no longer a certain ticket to cinematic success. That observation is worthy of a further semiotic analysis in itself, but it’s his second point that I want to pursue here: namely, that the kind of role that has made Hanks a superstar—“the regular guy we could all identify with”—is no longer in touch with the current American zeitgeist. Zeitchick then goes on to list the sort of protagonists that do seem to be in touch with the times these days, a list that includes “the kooky and stonerish (The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis); the swashbuckling and sometimes morally ambiguous (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Depp); and, most commonly lately, the Adonis-like and reticent (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth).”

Larry Crowne is about not only an ordinary man but an all-too-common experience these days for ordinary Americans (a man struggling to cope with the loss of his job), which makes this movie all the more poignant. We could argue that a lot of people might not want to shell out the price of admission for a movie about the sort of thing they came to the theater to forget, but I think that there is more to it than that.

A clue to what is going on lies in another of Zeitchick’s observations: that the sort of common-man role that Hanks has so successfully portrayed tends to be coupled with a plot in which the ordinary protagonist is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. As Zeitchick puts it:

He has drifted to sleep a child and woken up a man; gone unwittingly from mentally challenged savant to phenomenally rich folk hero; boarded a plane and gotten marooned for several years on a desert island; boarded a plane and gotten marooned for several years in an airport; walked down a city street and fallen in love with a fish. The biggest lesson of the Tom Hanks canon might be: “If you look like a regular guy and act like a gentleman, you just might have the most adventurous life humankind has ever known.”

What we seem to have here, then, is a variation on one of America’s most fundamental cultural contradictions. That is, American society has been structured upon two conflicting mythologies: the one democratic and populist, the other elitist and individualist. Thus, Americans tend to value at one and the same time the egalitarian vision of fitting in with the crowd, and the hierarchical dream of rising above the crowd into the rarified heights of success. One tendency aims at belonging, the other at arriving.

At various times in American history, one side of this contradictory mythology has been more popular than the other. The 1970s, for example, was very much a decade for populism, for TV families like the Waltons and the cult of truck drivers. The 1980s, on the other hand, was a decade for elitism, for Wall Street and Wall Street. The present manifests a bit of both, giving us Keeping Up With the Kardashians alongside America’s Dirtiest Jobs.

Popular culture often mediates cultural contradictions rather than taking sides, however, and in the typical Tom Hanks role, as Zeitchick  describes it, we find bundled together both impulses, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the common and the special. But with its tale of an ordinary man’s all-too-common experience, Larry Crowne is no such mediation, and it appears that audiences aren’t having it.

That’s too bad, I think. At a time when ordinary Americans need to see precisely what is happening to them in their ordinary lives, and why it is happening, a good dose of reality wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But I expect that with the disappointing results of Larry Crowne, that won’t be coming from Hollywood again anytime soon.

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2 Responses to “Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks, and the Common Man”

  1. Kenneth, SMU Says:

    Interesting analysis. But doesn’t the film’s quality enter into it? I’m in my mid-40s and would love to see a decent film about adults, but the reviews of this one have been so bad that I haven’t gone to see it.

  2. Jack Solomon Says:

    Quality does enter into box office success, but that is an aesthetic rather than semiotic judgment. Aesthetic judgments are singular, relating only to the artifact in hand. Semiotic judgments pertain to an entire context. In this case, the context is that there are very few films about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. When films about ordinary people are made, they are constricted by their creators’ knowledge that they have to find a way to appeal to their current audience. Such constrictions can lead to the making of bad movies, which, having failed, lead to the making of even fewer movies of their kind. A vicious circle, grounded, ultimately, in culture.