“Larry Crowne” is an inside-out movie, acceptable around the edges but hollow and shockingly unconvincing at its core. When that core is two of the biggest movie stars around — Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts — it’s an especially dispiriting situation.
Hanks and Roberts topline this adult romantic comedy about supposedly real people, the kind of movie that would be welcome were it not doomed by its tone of hopelessly contrived Hollywood sincerity.
Hanks, who also directed and co-wrote with Nia Vardalos (responsible for the cloying “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), has done himself no favors here. Though this story of an ordinary guy’s “Pygmalion"-type makeover after a midlife crisis may sound like it has potential, it plays more like a double-barreled vanity project than anything worth seeing.
Which is a shame, because Hanks is one of the few stars actually capable of playing ordinary. But saddled with a self-inflicted script that presents a character as chipper and gee whiz as Forrest Gump, Hanks’ attempts at creating empathy invariably go astray.
Hanks’ Larry Crowne is introduced as the ultimate company man, an enthusiastic employee of U-Mart who’s so devoted to his big-box store job that he cheerfully picks up trash in the parking lot on the way in to work.
In years past, the U-Mart nation had recognized Crowne’s ardor with numerous employee of the month awards, but not today. Today our hero, who joined the Navy right out of high school, gets terminated because he doesn’t have a college degree. That means he can’t be promoted, and that lack of opportunity is not the U-Mart way. Or something.
Even in the scene where Crowne gets fired, the bit players on-screen are more involving than he is, and this trend continues with the introduction of neighbors and professional yard-sale merchants Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson).
Lamar convinces Crowne that he needs an education to be “fire proof,” so Crowne buys a fuel-efficient scooter and putt-putts off to East Valley Community College (Cal State Dominguez Hills is the actual location) to meet his destiny.
In the scooter parking lot, Crowne pulls in next to fetching free spirit Talia (engaging British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a genial take-charge type who tells him he dresses too much like an ex-cop and introduces him to a “gang” of fellow scooter enthusiasts, including boyfriend Dell (Wilmer Valderrama).
It’s a good thing that “Larry Crowne” is able to cast these and other peripheral characters so well (the veteran Jeanne McCarthy did the honors), because it’s right about now that Crowne connects with faculty member Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who’s reluctantly teaching a course in informal public speaking.
Offering classes no one appreciates and trapped in a marriage with a writer (Bryan Cranston) who says he’s establishing a beachhead in the new media though he’s actually surfing the Internet for porn, Tainot is unhappy in her life and doesn’t care who knows it. Though nothing about her performance is inspired, Roberts is most convincing when she treats Crowne and his fellow students with haughty disdain.
Because even this movie knows that a Forrest Gump/Pretty Woman romantic pairing is not going to fly, “Larry Crowne” spends much of its time detailing the changes Crowne’s new scooter-riding friends make in his appearance and personality. Changes, we are led to believe, that will lead to the blinding realization that you, Larry Crowne, are, as Talia says, “way cooler than you appear.”
It’s all for naught, because “Larry Crowne’s” love connection between student and teacher is one of the most unconvincing in memory. Not only is the on-screen chemistry between Hanks and Roberts less than zero, the film’s feckless script can’t be bothered to come up with a scenario for their getting together that’s even a fraction as plausible as Tainot’s initial scorn.
When we last see these lovebirds, they are perched on Crowne’s scooter, waving patronizingly to the wretched peons in the audience, an act of self-satisfied movie star hauteur that would do credit to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. If this is the best Hollywood can muster for adult audiences, we’re in for a long, hard summer.