'Larry Crowne' Review: Tom Hanks Stumbles, Earnestly

Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn't the only movie releasing this week that takes place in a strange alternate fantasy America. In Larry Crowne, the second film directed by Tom Hanks, the giant robots and exaggerated douchebaggery of Michael Bay's creation are replaced by the giant personalities and megawatt smiles of Hanks and Julia Roberts. They are two of the quirky goofs that populate a community college in Anytown, USA, and  Larry Crowne is the mild and wholly unconvincing story of how they find one another amidst clouds of emotional and economic depression as wispy as blockbuster movie logic.

We here at /Film tend toward the spoiler-averse when writing a review. Because Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) wrote Larry Crowne without a hint of a dramatic arc or the slightest twinge of romantic tension, however, to summarize their movie is to present the entirety of the thing on a platter.

So I tell you this: Larry Crowne (Hanks) loses his job at a Target-like retailer, goes to community college to find his new future, is befriended and made-over by irrepressible free spirit Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing, I believe, mainstream America's first non-white Manic Pixie Dream Girl), and falls for his miserable, drunk public speaking teacher Mercedes Tainot (Roberts). In writing that, I'm not providing a blithe summary that conceals the winning jokes and deeper moments of true character revelation. There are none. That is the movie, pure and simple.

Oh, Larry Crowne is fitfully funny, in a way seemingly calculated to be inoffensive to an over-45 audience, and it is gentle and easy to watch. It aspires to be rooted in a slightly softer than screwball comedy sensibility, and instead manages only to be harmlessly arid. Supporting characters such as Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as Larry's lottery-wealthy neighbors, and Wilmer Valderrama as Talia's jealous-but-not-really boyfriend, are the soft-rock radio version of characters that might appear on Community. They're written to be both earnest and cartoonishly idealized, a tonal balance that never settles into any equilibrium

Remove Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts from the movie and you'd be left with little more than a husk. On the page, Larry could give argon and helium lessons on being inert. As a romantic hero he is... well, I'll get into the kind spirit of the movie and just say 'improbable.' He does very little of his own accord; his successful moves are largely actions he is prodded into taking.

His opposite, Mrs. Tainot, is simply unlikeable. She exists in a hungover cloud of resentment for her schlub writer husband (Bryan Cranston), who surfs pg-rated 'porn' and shops at the A Night at the Roxbury outlet, and for student disinterest for Shakespeare. Her speech class, into which Larry stumbles, is taught with a mixture of scorn and disgust typically reserved for the contemplation of pedophiles.

When they get together, the only possible reason is that he is really Tom Hanks and she Julia Roberts. Is this actually a superhero romcom, essentially a sunlit Tim Burton Batman/Catwoman love story without the vinyl masks, where the larger than life movie star identities of Hanks and Roberts cast off the tiny, dismal alter-egos of Crowne and Tainot and embrace in white-hot backlit self-actualization? I can safely say no, because I think I'd probably love that movie, and I definitely didn't love Larry Crowne.

(And let us not forget that the underpinning of this story is meant to be a society rocked by a faltering economy. Yet Larry successfully downsizes his life, quickly finds work at diner that thrives despite being wholly average, helps a friend create her own business, and makes out with a teacher who manages to keep her job — amid what one assumes would be a swarm of possible replacements — despite 'teaching' through a hangover haze. As cinematic fantasylands go, this one is far less plausible than Gotham City, or Bay's Transformer-ized America.)

I did quite enjoy Gugu Mbatha-Raw who, despite being written as a saccharine idealization, is able to light up the screen with a glance. Hanks knows her power, and cuts to her whenever possible, to the point of unintentional comedy. And Pam Grier makes a few welcome appearances as the teacher whose office is across the hall from Julia Roberts. George Takei tries to add a little bit of wild-card humor as he leads Larry's economics class, but his scenes are stifled, his power minimized.

Employ a romcom taxonomy, and we can call Larry Crowne a jellyfish, but not even a man-o-war. Just a small squishy thing; pretty, inscrutable and spineless as it floats off into the nothing.

/Film score: 4 out of 10