Saying anything negative about Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts is akin to disparaging mom, apple pie and puppies. They're undeniably two of the most recognizable and easiest actors to like in Hollywood, which is the biggest reason why Larry Crowne doesn't work as well as a movie as it should.
This is a nice movie, modest in its ambition and gentle with its humor. It would be a lower-budget independent production if not for its star power, which automatically makes it seem like an event that it can't be. Close your eyes and listen, and imagine the central roles played by less predictable actors who regularly do indie flicks — say, Paul Giamatti and Patricia Clarkson. The material is here but it's swamped by celebrity.
Hanks is mostly to blame, as director, co-writer, producer and star. Not to suggest this is an ego trip since by all accounts Hanks is a self-effacing kind of guy. Larry Crowne wouldn't sell as many tickets if he didn't take center stage and pull Roberts along with him. Without them, this low-key dramedy wouldn't venture far beyond the festival circuit.
Larry Crowne deals with serious real-life subjects in a breezy manner suiting its stars. Larry (Hanks) is a go-getter at work until he bosses tell him to simply go. Their excuse is that Larry doesn't have an education beyond high school; his reason is that spending 20 years in the U.S. Navy then getting married didn't leave time for college. All that's left of the marriage is a house in arrears. Enrolling in a community college might open doors to a new future.
Enter Mercy Tainot (Roberts), a burned-out professor whose marriage to a porn-surfing alcoholic (Bryan Cranston) is beyond repair. She hopes her new 8 a.m. crib class, the art of informal remarks, won't reach the 10-student minimum to proceed. Larry shows up as the 10th, causing minor tension. Despite the preview trailers, a romance won't develop for an hour, and the movie ends just as it's blossoming. Hanks and Roberts' foreplay banter is sitcom sharp but neither actor is especially challenged.
The pleasant surprises in Larry Crowne come from its side characters: Larry's sympathetic neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson), Rami Malek as a delightfully dim student, and especially George "Sulu" Takei, hilarious as a haughty economics professor. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wilmer Valderrama score as hipsters taking Larry under their wings for lessons in coolness.
Those entertaining performances sidetrack the inevitable clinch between Larry and Mercy, indicating Hanks' capable handling of actors. But everything always comes back to Larry and Mercy, where there are no surprises. Only two affable superstars taking a mulligan after their first teaming in Charlie Wilson's War flopped. Maybe a third time would be more of a charm.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.