Lightweight and easygoing, friendly and familiar on a sitcom-y level, I can’t imagine anyone actively disliking Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks’ first film as director since 1996’s That Thing You Do. It’s a disarmingly “nice” movie, and a pleasant-enough ride, but I’m not so sure that’s enough; while watching the film, I frequently found myself wondering where it was going, and if it was worth the wait.
Hanks stars as, yup, Larry Crowne, a likable and energetic manager at U-Mart who gets canned in the film’s first five minutes; corporate reasons are less than fully satisfying – something about Crowne reaching his maximum level in the company due to his lack of a college degree (huh?) – but it’s enough to set the plot into motion. Namely, Larry goes back to school to get that degree.
Larry enrolls in the local community college, which consists of two classes: Econ 1, taught by Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), and Speech 217, taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who, unfortunately, seems to share a few characteristics with the Cameron Diaz character from Bad Teacher. No points for guessing which teacher Larry falls in love with.
The rest of Larry’s starting-over, picking-up-the-pieces, getting-back-on-your-feet process involves purchasing a scooter to save on gas, getting a part-time job as a short order cook in his friend’s restaurant, and trying to settle a mortgage he can’t hope to pay off. In the process, Larry becomes fast friends with Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who molds Larry’s fashion and initiates him into her scooter “gang”, which includes boyfriend Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama).
With the possible exception of Robert’s Mercedes and her husband, played by Bryan Cranston, the characters are far too thinly sketched. There’s a good supporting cast here, which also includes Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Holmes Osborne, and Pam Grier, but they all have much too little to do.
That includes Hanks’ Larry Crowne, which is a particularly bad sign when you consider that the movie is named after him. He’s a nice guy, sure. We like him. But he’s bland: there’s no inner turmoil, no problem that he must overcome. He has no arc. He’s exactly the same at the beginning as he is at the end, and while it’s nice enough to spend 90 minutes with him, one begins to wonder: what’s the point?
The lack of story arc is epitomized by three speeches Larry must give for his Speech 217 class over the course of a semester: the first is about French Toast, the second interior design, the third George Bernard Shaw (or geography show).
Reaction shots from Mercedes and his classmates are supposed to show progression, but from our perspective, they’re all the same damn speech, with little-to-no change. Hanks and co-writer Nia Vardalos knew what they needed to show here, but they lacked the fire to effectively convey it.
Still, Larry Crowne is pretty tough to dislike. Inoffensive and harmless, it won’t seem like much a few days after you see it (that’s if you remember it at all), but I can think of far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
A generally agreeable soundtrack makes good use of familiar tracks from Tom Petty (Runnin’ Down a Dream, Listen to Her, Walls), Electric Light Orchestra (Hold on Tight, Calling America), and others.