LOS ANGELES — Tom Hanks has always enjoyed a challenge. After all, his break-out role came playing a woman in TV's "Bosom Buddies."
He co-starred with a volleyball in "Cast Away" and played a gay man with AIDS in "Philadelphia" at a time (1993) when playing gay in Hollywood was thought to be a career killer.
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that on Friday, the Hollywood star is bringing out his newest movie, "Larry Crowne" about a man who loses his job due to the recession, at a time when so many people are out of work.
To heighten the risk, Hanks not only stars in the movie, he directed it and co-wrote the screenplay with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" writer Nia Vardalos.
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Making "Larry Crowne" a box office hit will be a challenge to say the least, especially during the summer when movie theaters are filled with big-budget, effects-filled films like "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
But Hanks feels that he and his movie, which co-stars Julia Roberts, are up to the challenge, and he thinks "Larry Crowne" has one key secret for its potential success. It's not about loss, so much as about hope for the future.
"We are competing in a marketplace in which the thing we might have going for us is the true battle against cynicism," he said. "That's what 'Larry Crowne' is about more than anything else."Story: Roberts and Hanks heat up 'Larry Crowne'
Hanks plays the title character who is fired from a Walmart-like store where he's worked for decades. Divorced, with a mortgage and a gas-guzzling SUV, he enrolls in college to start over, taking classes taught by a teacher (Julia Roberts) with her own problems.
He sells his house, rides a scooter to save money and works at a diner to make ends meet.
Yet rather than being depressed about things, "he's got this amazing new forceful presence in his life and he can honestly say, 'The best thing that ever happened to me was getting fired from my job.'", said Hanks.Story: 'Larry Crowne' plays for laughs at expense of promising plot
But to people in the real world struggling with unemployment, a film like "Larry Crowne" may not be the type of escapism they want to see — even with its lighter tones and characters played by comedian Cedric the Entertainer and former "That 70s Show" sitcom star Wilmer Valderrama.
Last year, writer/director John Wells (who created TV monster hit "ER") released a feature film he wrote and directed, "The Company Men," about how three men deal with joblessness, how it affects their families and their status in the community.Video: Test your Julia Roberts knowledge (on this page)
"Company Men" starred Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner and had an estimated, low budget of $15 million. Still, it grossed only $4.4 million in U.S. ticket sales — hardly a hit. To be fair, it was a rather dark drama.
Vardalos said that despite the subject matter, "Larry Crowne" is not a "downer" movie.
"This is an uplifting movie and it's not out of the realm of the ordinary," she said. "It's what can happen if you keep your heart open."
And Hanks is quick to point out that very often when people step out of one life situation and into another, they find the change can be very life-affirming.Slideshow: Tom Hanks (on this page)
"That actually does happen in the real world," Hanks said, "and it's also a glamorous (plot twist). That's what we're going for. If you do that well enough, enough people will respond to it."
There can be little argument that when Hanks spies a challenge, he responds pretty well himself. After all, that gay role in "Philadelphia" — the one that could've been a career-killer — earned him an Oscar. And it wasn't his last.
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