When it comes to romantic comedies, there are two huge stalwarts of the genre, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Between the two of them, they’ve made hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, thanks to their collected output of romcoms. Ten or fifteen years ago, Larry Crowne would’ve made $200 million easily, but this isn’t the 20th century anymore. This is 2011, and what was once a clash of the genre titans is now, well, a bit sad.
Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is a well liked, dedicated employee of Umart, your local big box retailer. He likes his job, which he entered after spending twenty years in the Navy, but there’s a little problem. Larry’s opportunities for advancement are limited, thanks to his lack of college education. Hence, rather than getting another employee of the month award, Larry gets a pink slip. His solution? Go back to college.
When Larry runs into the dean of students and gets shuffled into a few classes, he finds himself in a speech class full of quirky students from a variety of racial backgrounds, ethnicities, and chronological time periods, from a young black sci-fi fan to a stoner, all of whom make up Mercedes Tainot’s (Julia Roberts) classroom. She’s a bit of a burned out drunk, so it’s up to Larry and a crew of scooter-riding misfits to shake things up and set everything right once more.
The movie itself is competent, sweet-natured, and inoffensive. It’s also cliché and a bit boring. There’s no real conflict to speak of. Larry loses his job at Umart, loses his house, and suffers complete life upheaval, yet his only response is to go back to college, meet a diverse group of new friends and get some updated clothing, and occasionally look sad when not in sassy George Takei’s economics class. At no point do we believe that Larry has suffered any sort of emotional damage from his various life traumas. Larry’s just a nice, affable guy whom life keeps shitting on.
It’s a shame that the movie itself is so bland, because the cast is stellar. Tom Hanks is likable, as he always is, and we know he’s capable of much better work. Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts, and you either like her or you don’t, as she’s been doing the same thing for a good twenty years now. The supporting characters, led by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Talia, is stellar. Not only is Ms. Mbatha-Raw completely adorable, she’s also refreshingly different in that she’s a non-white, non-terminally ill Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with whom Larry Crowne doesn’t hook up, or even try to). George Takei is the movie’s other major bright spot as economics professor Dr. Matsutani. Other than that, the movie wastes quite a few great character actors, from Bryan Cranston and Wilmer Valderrama to Pam Grier and Rob Riggle.
Aside from Talia’s character, there are no other real variations on the standard romantic comedy. Larry and Mercedes meet, Larry’s niceness breaks through Mercedes’ hard outer shell, and the two of them either live happily ever after, or at least start dating. The end result is never in doubt, and the movie doesn’t even try to establish that Larry might have been happier with his old life in the suburbs. Instead, he seems to just go wherever his twenty-something friends seem to want to go, and they, in turn, learn to embrace Larry for who he is after helping him loosen up. It’s a slight improvement, but a happier life for both Larry and Mercedes. Maybe she sobers up some when she’s not miserable, but that’s about the only change for anyone.
The script, from Hanks and Nia Vardalos, has some chuckles, but absolutely no stakes or drama. It simply checks all the necessary boxes, finishes in under one hundred minutes, and goes on about its merry way. The world is no better for its presence, nor is it any worse. It’s a romantic comedy in the most generic sense of the words. Hanks, who also directed the film, keeps things moving briskly, and infuses his scenes with Mbatha-Raw with quite a bit of chemistry. They seem like fast friends, in spite of their differences, and Larry seems to have a lot of fun with his new friends. (The same can’t be said about Hanks’ scenes with Julia Roberts, as the two have no chemistry.)
Larry Crowne is a great movie to take your grandmother to. She’ll be charmed by the actors she knows, and probably amused to a few chuckles, despite the occasional dalliance with adult content. The audience when I saw the film was pretty full and it was definitely an older demographic than the standard summer movie. I can only assume that’s why Hanks and company pushed the flick out in the heart of the summer blockbuster scene. If Michael Bay’s robot opus is a birthday cake, Larry Crowne is unflavored oatmeal.