Hollywood royalty carries ‘Crowne’: Tom Hanks goes from laid off to in love with Julia Roberts in a story of reinvention
Movies rarely come squarer than “Larry Crowne.’’ A big-box store fires Larry (Tom Hanks) from his manager’s job for lack of higher education. Jobless and stuck with a mortgage on a $392,000 house, Larry enrolls in a Los Angeles community college. When anyone says his name, he politely reminds them that it’s “Crown’’ with an “e.’’ He turns his 20 years’ cooking for the Navy into a job at his buddy’s diner. At school, he falls for his steely speech professor (Julia Roberts) and falls in with a multiracial gang of young scooter riders who commit such crimes of cuteness as makeovers and matchmaking. Larry discusses the glories of French toast, wears a silk scarf to class, and happily motors around the city with his new friends. It’s “Easy-Listening Rider.’’
Hanks directed “Larry Crowne,’’ and wrote the screenplay with his pal Nia Vardalos. It’s the work of someone tired of scanning the show times, seeing, say, “Comic-Book Movie 7,’’ and thinking, golly, there really is nothing out there for me. Hanks and Vardalos are taking on middle-aged multiplex starvation like it’s global warming. Some stars split themselves open to direct Something Important. To his credit, Hanks isn’t dancing with wolves or dragging Jim Caviezel to the Stations of the Cross (although his lighting is just this side of Streisand). He just wants to make another movie our grandmothers would see (the first was 1996’s knowingly square 1960s rock-band comedy, “That Thing You Do’’). So when Pam Grier, who plays one of Roberts’s fellow professors, complains that Facebook and Twitter are ruining minds, you can practically hear murmurs of approval. Blogs come in for a dis, too.
The movie isn’t trying to tap into people’s economic concerns. It glosses over those. Vardalos’s writing can be pleasingly broad and incisive, as it was in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’’ and “Connie and Carla.’’ She knows how to fill a grown-up void with sentimentality and zaniness. But “Larry Crowne’’ isn’t a movie for adults. It’s a movie for adults who don’t like things with screens and keyboards.
Having George Takei confiscate cellphones during his economics law class is funny. But the head scooter urchin and Larry’s classmate, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is an obnoxious feel-good idealization of youthful energy. She over-texts him (their conversation pops up on the screen). She gives him what she thinks is a cooler name (Lance Corona). She makes him buy better clothes (they’re vintage, her favorite), flirts with him, and causes adorable trouble with her leader-of-the-pack boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama).
The whole gang reeks of farmers’ market and craft beer. They’re Alice Waters Muppets. When Roberts meets Talia, she snipes, “What do men see in irritating free spirits?’’ Yes, that’s rich coming from a woman who once played Tinkerbell. Still, the line got a murmur of approval from me. Less time with the gang and more with Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson, I say. They play Larry’s yard-sale-fanatic neighbors. It’s all a little “Sanford and Son,’’ I know. But it’s as close to Redd Foxx as Cedric’s comedy will ever come.
Roberts is actually the best thing in the movie. She comes to class looking sour and hung-over. Her lines are delivered with a tang missing everywhere else in the movie. You wonder how much more interesting “Bad Teacher’’ would have been had conniving Cameron Diaz squared off against bitter Roberts, who, of course, in “Larry Crowne,’’ is Good Teacher. (The first word she writes on the board is “care.’’ Although when she does it, the chalk breaks up and her emphasis comically peters out.)
The smugness people say they dislike about Roberts is almost muscular here. Her snobbery and exasperation toward both her Neanderthal husband (Bryan Cranston) and her small and small-minded class are rigged in her favor, but they work. Naturally, the normal, exceptionally average Larry will tame her nastiness and start her braying with joy. Hanks makes it all look so easy that there’s no tension or wonder or fun. He clogs the soundtrack with lite guitar rock and is indifferent to matters of shot assembly.
Conventionally, “Bad Teacher’’ is a worse movie, but I’d rather watch that instead. It has a star luxuriating in her comfort zone. And despite its incoherence and viciousness and condescension, it has snap and edge. Plus, I think the kids actually learn something. “Larry Crowne’’ is no less condescending. Who knows what Professor Roberts instills in her adult students? Who knows why Larry says the word “spectacular’’ the way Tyler Perry’s Madea might? The movie just feigns a kind of aw-shucks egalitarianism. Ultimately, though, no one here but Roberts is Hanks’s equal.
In “Punch Line,’’ from 1988, Hanks plays a moonlighting stand-up comedian. There was a wild, manic need in that performance. He was acting out the please-love-me persona that now entombs him. In “Larry Crowne,’’ that quest is redundant. Hanks is approved. Nonetheless, he walks from scene to scene in a combined state of wonderment and confusion. It’s as if Woody the Cowboy has awoken to find himself a 50-year-old divorcé. That’s an earnest attempt at modesty that feels a tad false. Hanks keeps rearing his regality then apologizing for it. But it’s still a crown, with the “e’’ or without.