Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts probably are the two most likable actors on the planet.
And until recently, they've been among the more bankable as well.
Larry Crowne, then, is the classic example of two beloved stars being beloved stars together, making for sure-fire box-office magic.
Unless the film is as unlikable and easily forgotten as this unremarkable story of a nice guy in his late middle-age who has been coldly placed at life's crossroads.
Larry (Hanks) is a nine-time employee of the month at a fictional big-box retail store who unceremoniously has been let go because his bosses say he has no college degree and has reached the career ceiling with the company. The Larry Crowne trailers would leave you to believe that this is a movie about our times, a Hollywood reaction to the Great Recession. It's not. Unemployment has little to do with this film, other than as a plot device gimmick to push Larry into his journey of self-discovery.
And to make us really empathize with Larry, he's also recently divorced, and is upside down in his home, which means the bank won't offer him financial assistance. With no one hiring someone his age, and few options remaining, he enrolls in a community college at the suggestion of a neighbor-friend played by Cedric the Entertainer (the funniest character in the movie) to make himself "fool-proof" for his next employers. He signs up for two courses -- beginning economics and a speech introduction class, both of which will change his life.
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Economics helps him turn around his money troubles, while the speech class helps him with his love life by introducing him to Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), the course instructor.
Mercedes is going through a personal crisis of her own. She's lost interest in teaching because she believes the students no longer care (is this really something new?), and she's married to a blogger (played by Bryan Cranston, a talented, funny actor whose talents are wasted), who spends his days scouring the Internet for photos of well-endowed women. It's no wonder that the high-point of her day comes with the sweet relief of an afternoon cocktail.
Mercedes and Larry don't hit it off at first. She thinks he's going to college to meet young coeds after she sees him with Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an attractive and flirtatious girl with a sweet smile and helpful advice for almost everyone. And why would such a woman take an interest in someone old enough to be her father? Larry is a pet project for her, someone she can help reinvent through makeovers and feng shui. (Did I mention Larry Crowne is set in California?) This doesn't sit well with Talia's jealous boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama), who leads a pack of scooter owners acting as a biker gang (seriously), including new recruit Larry.
But it's Larry and Mercedes who are supposed to be together, which means her husband has to do something silly (like tell her in a moment of anger he likes big breasts, which she doesn't have), and for her to do something equally silly (like ending the marriage because of her husband's comment and falling for Larry after a drunken kiss) to make it happen.
None of this really makes sense, and that would be forgivable if the movie were entertaining.
It's a crime to waste the talent involved in Larry Crowne on such an unremarkable project. Even more egregious is that the funny parts in this comedy are few and far between, with a script by Hanks, who also directed, and friend Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame (that 2002 film continues to be her resume highlight) that relies on cracks about cell phones, Star Trek being mistaken for Star Wars, and scooters.
Take out the cell phone jokes and you've got a 1980s comedy. Add the cell phone jokes and you've got a 1990s comedy.
This marks the second trip behind the camera for Hanks, though he fared much better with his directorial debut, 1997's That Thing You Do!, a low-budget comedy love-letter to 1960s pop-music innocence. His work in Larry Crowne is dull and uninteresting, as the movie passively moves forward with little dramatic reflection of what's happening. Perhaps that's because there is little drama in the movie. Larry keeps his emotions bottled up, so there are no mountains and valleys to his story. And with no breaking-point failures, there's little to get excited about for the triumphs.
Mercedes at least displays feelings, but she's cold and borderline unlikable. How is it that her husband's lack of a career and love of porn, as well as her own troubles with students have demoralized and desensitized her so much that she's a zombie? Is her life so bad that she's lost the ability to do anything about her marriage and career woes, other than after-school cocktails? Somewhere in this script there's a more interesting character waiting to be developed. The same could be said of the movie.
Directed by Tom Hanks. Written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos. A Universal Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content. Running time: 99 minutes.
Critic's rating: *
Larry Crowne .........Tom Hanks
Mercedes Tainot ............ Julia Roberts
***** Outstanding; **** Very Good; *** Good; ** Fair; * Good.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.