There oughtn’t be anything troublesome about Larry Crowne, which stars the affable everyman, Tom Hanks. I love Tom Hanks. The world should love Tom Hanks. As far as I’m concerned, the man gets a lifetime pass for everything he made between the years of 1980 and 2002, and half of what he’s made since then. He’s responsible for Woody. For Philadelphia. For Big. For Wilson. And Joe Fox. And the greatest laugh scene in history of film. And he matches that onscreen talent with off-screen deeds. He and Steven Spielberg made “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” He produced “From the Earth to the Moon.” And there’s no better talk-show guest in Hollywood. He’s one of the few actors in Hollywood — along with Clooney, Pitt, and Damon — for whom I can honestly say I’m thankful. If there were an acting category in the Olympics, I’d be proud to have Hanks represent America, not because he’s the best actor but because he may be the best representative.
As the co-writer (along with Nia Vardolos) and the director of Larry Crowne, Hanks also brings the same easygoing vibe to this movie that he brought to the first film he wrote and directed, That Thing You Do!, as perfect an encapsulation of a pop song as a movie ever was, a film you can tune into during any scene and bob your head along until the credits roll. Yet, there is something bothersome about the empty but earnest charm of Larry Crowne. Like Julia Roberts (see Eat, Pray, Love) Tom Hanks has seemingly given into the Oprah perspective, this overly simplistic view of the world that massively wealthy but very nice people often have. The view that, if you are kind, if you do good deeds, and if you work hard and pay your dues, then everything will magically work itself out. It’s life-by-platitude self-help, and it’s disconcerting to see even in a comedy as frivolous as Larry Crowne. Much of that has to do with how he imbues his characters with that same mindset, turning them into big smiles and nice-but-empty sentiment. It’s naive, Mayberry hucksterism, and the complete lack of real emotional conflict makes Larry Crowne not just a diaphanous film, but a tedious one, as well.
Hanks stars as Crowne, a 20-year veteran of the Navy, where he served as a line cook before he retired to go into retail sales. He approaches his retail job with earnest zeal of a nine-time employee of the month. He’s nevertheless laid off because his lack of a college education makes him unsuitable for management. After his neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) convinces him to go back to school and “get yourself some knowledge,” Larry barters for a scooter, signs up at the local Community College, and is quickly on his way to a lifetime of happiness with the help of Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a free spirit who feng-shui’s Crowne’s life to Zen.
The professor of his speech class, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), has hit her own rough patch. Her husband (Bryan Cranston) has turned from professor to author to blogger to lazy asshole who sits around all day looking at Internet porn and leaving trollish comments on websites. She drinks, and in a very light, frothy way, fails to see the point in life. Her world is changed by the presence of Larry, although there are no relationship scenes in Larry Crowne to suggest exactly how. The two just kind of gravitate toward one another, because he’s Tom Hanks and she’s Julia Roberts, and Meg Ryan looks like a complete disaster these days, so who else is Hanks gonna get? There’s definitely chemistry between the two, but it feels more platonic than romantic, which doesn’t bode well for a romantic comedy.
There are a couple of sweet moments in Larry Crowne, because Hanks is who he is, and he can bring a Jimmy Stewart twinkle to even the worst writing. But in a way, Hanks has given in to his own hype, falsely under the belief that an entire film can coast by on earnest charm, weak aphorisms, and the general likability of the cast. It doesn’t quite work that way — it’s just one ingredient in the filmmaking process that, as always, should begin with a compelling, well-told story. Larry Crowne lacks that; it dithers around for an hour and a half until it decides to sputter out, never finding friction in its characters or giving the audience anything but a flat road and a bike with no pedals with which to coast it.