Yes, yes: everybody loves Tom Hanks. I do too. I just love him a little less after Larry Crowne. Directed, produced, and co-written by Tom Hanks, Larry Crowne is a featherweight dramedy of the new economy. Hanks stars as the title character, a model employee fired from big box store “UMart” under the rationale that—since he never went to college—he has no prospects for advancement within the company. Crowne counters that he skipped college because he went straight into the Navy, serving twenty years as a cook, but he gets canned anyway (ironically, the boss-man is played by Dale Dye, Hollywood’s go-to military technical advisor).
The divorced Larry lives in a suburban house that’s recently gone underwater, so after being fired, he allows himself one long dark night of the soul. Then he gets up and starts the work of changing his life: a yard sale, swapping a scooter for his car, and signing up for classes at East Valley Community College, where the friendly neighborhood dean tells him he won’t regret signing up for Speech 217 (“The Art of Informal Remarks”), taught by the beautiful Ms. Tainot (Julia Roberts).
Larry’s chipper demeanor quickly wins friends and influences people. He first catches the interest of fellow scooter-riding student Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who takes on Larry as something of a fixer-upper in his fashion and feng shui. She also invites him to join her and her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama) in their scooter “gang,” the “Street Patrol.” Meanwhile, Ms. Tainot has tired of her husband’s lack of engagement in anything other than big-busted porn (though the character is more caricature, Bryan Cranston puts in a well-tuned performance).
If this is all beginning to sound sitcomedic—more sunny than likely—you have a good ear. The impression becomes downright deafening in Ms. Tainot’s classroom, with its multicultural peanut gallery of likeable dimwits (add to that Larry’s comical neighbor, overplayed by Cedric the Entertainer). Hanks fans will note the small role for his wife Rita Wilson and the Star Trek references, including George “Mr. Sulu” Takei, in the film’s most amusing performance, as Larry’s Economics teacher (Hanks is a lifelong Trekker).
Larry’s can-do spirit is reflected in the Tom Petty and ELO tunes (“Hold on Tight to Your Dreams”) on the soundtrack: heck, he’s even got the right stuff to turn the weary, bitter Ms. Tainot into butter in his hands. Hanks has the sense to write himself a snappy climactic monologue as well as a couple of clinches with Roberts, and if there’s a reason to see the film (other than Takei), it’s the smooth movie-star performances turned in by the leads.
Hanks’ previous directorial effort, That Thing You Do, was all about exuberance, but it had music and nostalgia on its side. Larry Crowne (co-written by Nia “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Vardalos) has its heart in the right place by encouraging the downtrodden of all stripes to stay in the game, to better themselves instead of accepting defeat. But the movie has the consistency of an individually wrapped slice of Velveeta. It’s a “feel-good” movie; it’s just not a particularly good one.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]