Bland "Larry Crowne" goes down easy but that's it
Larry Crowne (2011)
99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +
Safe. Amiable. Cute. Corny. "Larry Crowne" is all of these things but little else. What you see is what you get in this nice, optimistic, middle-of-the-road back-to-school romantic comedy vehicle for two of America's Sweethearts, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. You could even take your grandmother to see it, but good luck taming your cynical side.
Fifteen years after making his directorial debut with 1996's enjoyable "That Thing You Do!," Hanks returns as writer, director, and star. He plays Larry, a divorced Navy vet who gets downsized from his worker-bee job at a big-box store called U-Mart for having no college education. Times are tough for Larry, especially in this recession-era "reality." He starts selling things from his house next door to his neighbors, perpetual yard-salers (Cedric the Entertainer and a squeaky Taraji P. Henson passing as a sitcom couple). He ditches his gas-sucking SUV for a moped scooter. Finally, Larry enrolls into community college located in Colorful Movie Land and takes an economics course and an 8 a.m. class in informal public speaking. At the drop of a hat upon meeting him, and for no real reason at all, a fun, exciting free spirit named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a lovely specimen) "adopts" Larry into her scooter gang with boyfriend Dell (Wilmer Valderrama) that snap like "West Side Story's" The Jets. She gives him a hip nickname ("Lance Corona"), brings more Feng shui to his living room, and "makes over" his wardrobe.
Speech professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) jumps at the chance to cancel her class when only nine students show for her ten minimum, but Larry shows up. Mrs. Tainot (not Tie-knot) drowns her sorrows in alcohol because she's married to a deadbeat blogger (Bryan Cranston) that watches porn all day.
Ultimately, Larry's life changes because of Mercy's class and Mercy warms up because of Larry, but we never really see why.
"Larry Crowne" is surely refreshing (and quiet) in a summer season ordinarily owned by big, loud, moneyed sequels and it's nice to finally see two instantly appealing movie stars, like Tom and Julia, that show a great deal of chemistry together. (This is their second on-screen pairing since 2007's "Charlie Wilson's War.") They could be playing bank robbers and they'd still be charming.
Sometimes "pleasant fluff" is just good enough, but the stars' characters are only as interesting as the actors playing them. Hanks is likable in a Forrest Gumpish sort of way, but his arc mostly permits him to be a nice guy that becomes nicer. It's never clear why his wife divorced him or why such a huge mortgage is hovering over his head. Roberts is Roberts with her sunny disposition, warm smile, and infectious cackle, but her Mercedes is superficially influenced by Larry. She drills into her students' heads that they need to care, but it's never clear if she finally practices what she preaches.
Without any real conflict or believable characters, "Larry Crowne" isn't much. Hanks showcases a lightness behind the camera, but his script co-written with one-hit-wonder Nia Vardalos (writer and star of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") is too fond of cornball shtick that falls flat. Long-time friends Hanks and Vardalos bring their family along: Hanks' squeeze, Rita Wilson; their son, Chet; and Vardalos' hubby, Ian Gomez (of TV's "Cougar Town"), clock in their time in bit parts. George Takei is also very funny as an economics professor with a maniacal laugh.
Likable but sometimes too self-consciously likable, "Larry Crowne" at least goes down easier than a "Transformers" movie.