The best romantic comedies have a blithe, take-it-or-leave-it spirit. Larry Crowne has the opposite. It’s the neediest movie of 2011, and one of the phoniest.
Set in an American middle class only vaguely like the real one, Larry Crowne co-stars Julia Roberts as a community college instructor of public speaking and English (I think; the script is vague) who rivals the Cameron Diaz layabout in Bad Teacher in aggressive slackerdom. The main star, though, is the co-producer, co-writer and director, Tom Hanks, who has made all sorts of potential dullards on screen worth watching. So why does Larry Crowne go flooey?
Co-scripted by Nia Vardalos (whose monster hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding was produced by Hanks), the project grew out of Hanks’ story notion of a decent middle-aged man thrown for a loop by economic circumstance and returning to community college to begin a new life. This is a fine idea for a screenplay; anyone who has attended (or taught in) community colleges knows the diversity of most student bodies goes every which way, ethnically, socioeconomically, generationally.
But straight off it’s clear Larry serves as a flat emblem of a situation, rather than an interesting character in a situation. A recently divorced, financially strapped Navy veteran, with an underwater mortgage, he’s laid off from his team leader position at the local U-Mart big box store. Reason? A wobbly one: He’s told he lacks the college degree required for management positions.
So it’s back to school, somewhere in the Valley region of Los Angeles. When we first meet Larry, he’s in his comfort zone as a backslapping, hail fellow hunk of niceness at the U-Mart.
Yet in his first public-speaking attempt in class, he’s a different man, stilted and tongue-tied, bearing no resemblance to the Larry of the earlier scenes. This isn’t complexity; it’s just inconsistency.
The borderline alcoholic played by Roberts, whose character is married to a porn addict (Bryan Cranston), has given up all hope in her romantic life and her career. Larry represents hope and resilience and Nice Guys Finish First. Scooter-driving Larry’s fellow students, who include a dishy scooter enthusiast played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, barely register as comic stereotypes, let alone something richer.
Most films make no bones about where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. Larry Crowne, whose screenplay is too close to the quality level of Vardalos’ recent I Hate Valentine’s Day for comfort, offers zero surprises, but — fatally — no wit, and only the thinnest sort of synthetic charm. Bleached of any real-world emotional wrinkles, Hanks’ character coasts on the actor’s world-class likeability. Larry’s neighbors, played by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson, are generic in the extreme, which becomes the paradox of the film itself: How can a generic product provoke such resistance? Had Hanks directed two unknowns in the leads, rather than himself and Roberts, it’s possible Larry Crowne wouldn’t carry the same air of A-list slumming. Yet I wonder.