We haven’t seen Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts in a movie like “Larry Crowne” in decades.When you’ve got “Oscar winner” and “blockbuster hits” on your resume, feather-light character comedies fall off your radar.
“Crowne” is a perfectly pleasant but fluffy, inconsequential romantic comedy. It plays to their trademark strengths — Hanks’ American Everyman decency and pluck, Roberts’ romantic longing punctuated by that million megawatt smile and toothy laugh. Package the “Charlie Wilson’s War” co-star in a movie ripped from the Recession zeitgeist and it’s like a great big hug to America’s over-50 and newly-unemployed. It’s Will Ferrell’s “Everything Must Go” without any hint of edge.
Hanks has the title role, another hyper-competent blue collar working man (think “Cast Away”). He went straight from high school to the Navy to a job at a home improvement chain store. And when they rather curtly and incompetently lay the divorced, mortgaged Larry off, they say it’s because his lack of a degree will always “retard your movement” up the ladder.
That’s how Larry winds up at East Valley Community College. A college degree, he figures is how he can “make sure that [being laid off] never happens again.”
He’s talked into taking a speech course, to give him confidence in interviews, because “it will CHANGE your life.” And sure enough it does, because it’s taught by the hard-drinking, unhappily married burnout, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts).
Hanks directed this and co-wrote the script with his pal and protege, Nia “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Vardalos. The script tilts heavily toward the Vardalos style — broad, obvious characters, even broader wish-fulfillment story. It takes an effort worthy of another Greek — Hercules — to keep this from collapsing into cloying.
The film is a veritable make-work project for scores of character actors. There’s Mercedes’ sci-fi writer “and porn surfer” slacker husband, played by Bryan Cranston, the patronizing banker who will take Larry’s house (Rita Wilson, aka Mrs. Hanks), Frank, the owner of a diner where Larry gets part-time work (Ian Gomez, aka Mr. Vardalos), the goofy neighbors having a perpetual yard sale (Taraji P. Henson and Cedric the Entertainer), and the self-important economics professor, played by George Takei and his booming laugh.
“They call them SMART phones,” he rumbles, “but only dummies use them in my class.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the cute coed who takes Larry under her wing, gives him a hipster wardrobe, renames him “Lance Corona” and brings him into her boyfriend’s scooter gang. The beau is played by Wilmer Valderamma, and Larry has bought a scooter after seeing how much it costs him to fill up his SUV.
The players are reliably unsurprising, as is the story. This is not about an education opening a middle-aged man’s mind, it’s about a middle aged man learning just how much he has to offer the workplace, the world and a woman, thanks to what college gives him.
As with his first directing effort, “That Thing You Do,” Hanks shows no interest in finding a real “villain” here or generating the conflict that sort of obstacle to Larry’s happiness inspires. It’s a nice movie made by a guy with a nice image.
And as such, it’s perfectly pleasant big screen comfort food — meatloaf, potatoes and apple cobbler served as bubbly Tom Petty and ELO tunes waft from the soundtrack. Neither we nor they have forgotten that Hanks and Roberts can deliver something this far within their comfort zone. Perhaps the only surprising thing about “Larry Crowne” is that at this stage of their stellar careers, they’d choose to.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts,
Bryan Cranston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wilmer Valderrama, George Takei
Credits: Directed by Tom Hanks, written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, produced by Hanks and Gary Goetzman. A Universal release. Running time: 1:39