Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts star in a bland romantic comedy that kinda grows on you.
A feature-length “It Gets Better” video for broke, middle-aged white dudes, Tom Hanks’ second feature directorial effort Larry Crowne is an odd, stridently square little duck. It’s a deeply doofy movie, prone to sitcom staging and broadly comic groaners. Bereft of conflict, the film coasts along in second gear on breezy charm, gentle humanism and star wattage. But weirdly enough, somewhere along the line Hanks’ sweet naivete began to grow on me; it got better.
Hanks (who co-wrote the screenplay with My Big Fat Greek Harridan Nia Vardalos) stars as the title character, a 50-something middle-manager at a big-box chain store in suburban California who finds himself downsized and underwater on his mortgage. Larry trades his SUV for a cheap motor-scooter and enrolls in the local community college, where he proceeds to annoy the hell out of his perpetually hungover “Public Speaking 217: The Art Of Informal Remarks” professor, played by Julia Roberts.
Nothing of much dramatic import happens during Larry Crowne, and the movie’s sunny, low-stakes disposition grates on many, judging from the poor reviews and paltry box office. Yet, I still found it impossible to actively dislike. For starters, Hanks is doing comedy again. Strange that such a whip-smart, cuttingly sarcastic dude in real life usually wants to play such galumphy rubes, but his Larry is so kind and affable—the sorta fellow who picks up litter off the streets and deposits it in nearby trash cans—your heart can’t help but go out to him, even if I wish Hanks had dialed back a bit of the Gump -tion during the early reels.
Larry accidentally falls in with the college’s too-cool-for-school scooter gang, headed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Talia. For reasons left unexplained by the screenwriters, Talia takes an immediate liking to our dorky protagonist and makes him her pet project. (She’s apparently the first person to ever tell him that tucking a Polo shirt into your khakis makes you look like a retired cop.) A full makeover ensues, giving Larry a slick haircut, an amusing vintage-shop wardrobe, and even an allegedly awesome new nickname: Lance Corona.
The newly empowered Lance Corona, now clad in a never-not-funny array of hipster scarves and skinny jeans, doesn’t waste much time wallowing in his monetary nightmare. After taking a job as a line cook at a local breakfast joint, Larry excels at Economics 101 (taught by the always wonderful George Takei) and even figures out how to stick it to those nasty bank people (Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson) by strategically defaulting on his mortgage.
I’m still not exactly sure how turning in your house keys can be played as a moment of triumph, but Hanks sells it with a top-spin of Jimmy Stewart sass, and the wall-to-wall Tom Petty and ELO songs on the soundtrack keep bolstering the upbeat mood.
And then there is Roberts. Boozy, angry and drifting through classes in a contemptuous fog, her Mercedes Tainot (great name!) is saddled with a loser science-fiction writer husband (Bryan Cranston) who now wastes his days commenting on blogs and looking at porn. But since Larry Crowne is the kind of movie that it is, his porn addiction extends to nothing more risque than well-endowed bikini models.
Blogging, smartphones, Facebook, texting and Twitter are all singled out for scolding during various moments in this picture, and at one point somebody seriously even calls it, “the eBay.”
Yeah, it’s that old-fashioned. Also strangely endearing. There’s a generosity of spirit that reminded me of Jonathan Demme, who perhaps not coincidentally produced Hanks’ delightful 1996 debut feature, That Thing You Do! It shouldn’t be so rare to find a movie that feels like it was made by people who actually like people, but Larry Crowne’s buoyant vision of a world where folks just want to help each other out eventually becomes kind of contagious. It’s such a friendly, multi-cultural fantasy—doesn’t everybody wish they had Pam Grier as the gal next door, offering sassy advice and pitchers of margaritas?
Sadly, Hanks isn’t half the director Demme is. His scenes aren’t blocked well at all and the screenplay often settles for banal crowd-pleasing one-liners that aren’t particularly funny. But the movie really, really, really wants you to like it, and you can call me a sucker but eventually I surrendered.
There’s something to be said for star power, and when Hanks is in genial mode he’s pretty tough to resist. Ditto for Roberts, who has had a rough time lately at the movies but hits this one out of the park. She’s full of such unpleasant 80-proof disdain that when she finally kicks back about an hour into the thing and lets out her trademark horse-laugh and that mega-watt smile, it’s almost not even fair.
I predict that my mother will watch this movie from start-to-finish every weekend next year, when it is inevitably, constantly rerun on basic cable. Larry Crowne is that kind of picture.
Director: Tom Hanks
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Sarah Mahoney