By Richard Schickel
The premise is, quite frankly, preposterous: Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is a faithful and enthusiastic clerk in a cavernous Walmart-like store, where he has nine times been named employee of the month. Then one day he is blindsided by corporate bylaws. It seems you cannot aspire to a management position if you don’t have a college degree, which Larry does not possess.
So bye-bye Larry, who decides that, despite his advanced years, he will attend college after all. He enrolls in a community college, where he soon meets Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), a speech teacher who is angry and bitter over her dead-end job and marriage. His sunny nature soon cures her of unhappiness, and by the end of the movie, there is the promise of new lives all around.
“Larry Crowne” is a wan and predictable romantic comedy, much more the former than the latter. It is, for me at least, a major disappointment. There comes a summer moment when most of the big action pictures have thundered past and the gross-out comedies have fallen on our increasingly deafened ears, and we are ready to embrace a lightsome movie for adults featuring two of our most likable stars. Instead, we are left to speculate about what went wrong with this lifeless film, which, it is said, required no less than four years just to get written in shootable form.
Do you think they were possibly trying too hard?
Certainly it seems Tom Hanks was. Besides acting in the movie he is also its director, co-writer (with Nia Vardalos) and co-producer. That’s a lot of hats teetering atop one distracted head. One result of that burden is that Hanks has somehow forgotten to give himself many funny moments—especially those that tap into the goofy, improvisatory side of his nature. This is probably the most recessive performance I’ve ever seen him give. In effect, he cedes the picture to Roberts, whose energy is whirlwind. She pouts. She blows up (particularly at Bryan Cranston, playing her feckless husband, Dean), she is sexually aggressive when the occasion demands it, she is fully present (and giddily inventive) all the time. You can’t say that she saves the movie, but she is what it has to sustain our intermittent interest.
It’s emblematic of “Larry Crowne” that when Hanks and his newfound college pals go mobile, they are not a motorcycle gang, roaming the streets in some possibly menacing or blackly comedic fashion, but a harmless motor scooter gang: good-natured, pallid and essentially a waste of screen time. Which says nothing of the way the film also wastes the potentially promising presences of excellent supporting players like Cedric the Entertainer and Pam Grier.
None of this is meant to suggest that I have lost my faith in Tom Hanks. He is a comic actor of great and often surprising range, whether he is playing delightful innocence in “Big” or the equally funny faux toughness of his baseball manager in “A League of Their Own.” Or, for that matter, the straight, hard-charging action hero in films like “The Da Vinci Code.” I think we can all stipulate his likability. He has nothing to prove in that department. But in this instance he is just too polite, too willing to hand his picture to a co-star he obviously likes and admires. But he needs to be angrier, more blustering, about the unfairness of his predicament. The unconsulted dark side of Larry Crowne could be funny, too, and even dangerous.
All right, it’s not a big deal—just a missed opportunity. But it does leave something of a hole in our moviegoing summer—one that cannot be entirely filled by Hanks’ obvious admiration for Julia Roberts’ gorgeous gams (and equally gorgeous comedic skills), which he adores as much as the rest of us do. What she needs is a full partner in a much more tightly wound movie.