Movie stars may be less valued than they used to be, but it’s still puzzling to see Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts stuck in a romantic comedy as flat-footed and tone deaf as “Larry Crowne.” The story of a middle-aged average Joe who goes to college, finds love and befriends a veritable rainbow coalition of upbeat minorities, Hanks’ first directorial effort since 1996’s “That Thing You Do!” is an insipid mid-recession fable in which every honest laugh and emotion has been sanitized out of the equation. Chemistry-free lead duo looks unlikely to energize long-term commercial prospects for this Universal release.
It takes a particularly deft cinematic hand (Frank Capra’s, ideally) to express solidarity with the working man without coming off as clueless, condescending or, in the case of “Larry Crowne,” both. Striving to touch on current economic woes in a warmly humorous vein, the screenplay by Hanks and co-scribe Nia Vardalos strikes the wrong note from its first scene, in which likable blue-collar type Larry (Hanks) is rudely let go from the Walmart-like chain store where he’s worked for years.
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With no bachelor’s degree and a mountain of alimony and mortgage payments, Larry decides to start over and simplify, turning in his SUV for a motor scooter and enrolling at his local community college. On his first day of class, he meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a cute, free-spirited thing who inexplicably invites him to join her friendly biker gang. Spouting perky life lessons like “A man on a scooter can accomplish anything!,” Talia gives her new friend a cool name (“Lance Corona”) and a makeover to match, cutting his hair, overhauling his wardrobe and going all feng shui on his living room.
Not unlike Vardalos’ “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (which Hanks produced with wife Rita Wilson, who has a bit part here), “Larry Crowne” is predicated on the notion that the average white guy is a nice, bland, personality-free dolt on whom wacky but non-threatening minorities can project their particular quirks. These include not just Talia, but also her macho Latino b.f. (Wilmer Valderrama), a Zen-like Japanese economics professor (George Takei, amusingly cryptic) and the black neighbors running a perpetual yard sale (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson, wasted).
But the individual who really changes Larry’s life is his icily beautiful speech professor, Ms. Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who’s trapped in a miserable marriage to Dean (an ill-used Bryan Cranston), a layabout who spends most of his time surfing for porn (though it’s a measure of how squeaky-clean the film is that even Dean’s erotica collection is strictly PG-13). Husband and wife quarrel repeatedly in a series of unpleasant scenes whose sole dramatic purpose is to drum up sympathy for Ms. Tainot when her interest in Larry turns decidedly extracurricular.
A creepy (if age-appropriate) student-professor romance would have at least introduced a welcome element of disreputability, subverting the movie’s intended spirit of heartwarming, character-building uplift. Instead, the script waffles and rationalizes, asking viewers to believe Larry and Ms. Tainot share a love that transcends any wrongdoing, yet taking pains to reassure us that they haven’t, in fact, really done anything wrong. It’s an awful lot of fuss to justify the faint pleasure of seeing Hanks and Roberts together onscreen (the two were previously paired in “Charlie Wilson’s War”).
Tamping down her natural screen appeal, Roberts has been instructed to act brittle, short-tempered and irrationally man-obsessed. The result is a character who all but seethes with contempt, some of which almost seems to be directed at the material. As helmer, co-writer and star, Hanks goes in the opposite direction, courting viewer affection with dumb grins, adorably un-hip postures and other busy, cutesy tics. “Larry Crowne” could almost be called an anti-vanity project: At this point in his career, Hanks shouldn’t have to strip down to his skivvies for a laugh.
Recognizably shot in and around Los Angeles, pic often features too much dead air around intended punchlines. Score and soundtrack never function in a less-than-obvious manner.