'Larry Crowne': Average Joe seeks return of his mojo

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2011 - 9:08 AM

Tom Hanks and a dozen very good actors cannot save this simplistic adult romance from becoming generic.

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Julia Roberts plays a speech teacher, and Tom Hanks is a laid-off worker who returns to school in “Larry Crowne.”

Photo: Bruce Talamon, Universal Pictures

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Tom Hanks is killing time in "Larry Crowne," an adult romance that is heartwarming, uplifting and monumentally dull.

The picture is designed to charm people and it does so by mechanical means: eccentric characters, repetitive visual gags and performances dusted with so much comic sparkle you could die from the twinkling.

Hanks plays the title character, a good-Joe naval veteran abruptly fired from his job at a big-box store because he lacks a college degree.

The film seems as if it is onto something in a scene where Hanks pleads with his patronizing bosses, eyes welling. The setup is the only moment of real dramatic complication in the film, however. No sooner is Larry cut loose than we enter a magical world where one kiss causes a couple to fall in love and one semester of introductory economics sets a floundering job seeker on a path of economic independence.

In the world of "Larry Crowne," all it takes to triumph over downsizing is a positive attitude; the script exists merely to steer the film to the next easy laugh.

Larry enters the local community college, where all the students are fun-loving ding-alings; develops a tame crush on his teacher (Julia Roberts), and gets his mojo back. This is basically a male makeover movie. Larry regains his confidence by getting a new haircut, a more flattering wardrobe and a redecorated home thanks to Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a dazzling coed who becomes his guardian angel. Why she would take on dowdy Larry as her fixer-upper project and phone-texting best buddy is never explained. It is as big a mystery as why Hanks cast himself in a bland, passive role that would not strain the talents of Tim Allen.

Larry is less a character than a concept, a generic Joe Average learning to cope with a recession-shrunk American dream. We're told that he has been through a "blood bath" in a recent divorce, but we see no trace of his ex and no emotional scars on his ever-upbeat personality. It's hard to imagine a true Californian smiling through the indignity of trading down from a mastodon-sized SUV to an aged scooter, but our Larry grins like a kid on his first merry-go-round. Only Roberts gets a scrap of back story, in scenes with her layabout husband (Bryan Cranston), an out-of-work writer whose taste for adult websites drives her to make gigantic blender cocktails. Emotional friction makes its one and only appearance in a scene where they get tipsy enough to lay into each other.

The only quality that gives the film any distinction is the cast. The most amazing people keep turning up. Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and "Star Trek's" George Takei play professors, Wilmer Valderrama of "That '70s Show" plays Talia's needlessly jealous boyfriend, Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson play Larry's neighbors, who operate a never-ending yard sale, and former "Daily Show" correspondent Rob Riggle plays a smug suit who fires Larry but gets a magical comeuppance.

Hanks hasn't always had a great nose for material (remember "The Money Pit," "The Ladykillers" and "Bonfire of the Vanities"?). This time, though, he has no one to blame but himself. Hanks directed this saccharine exercise in wish fulfillment and co-wrote it with Nia Vardalos (whose folksy smash "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" he produced in 2002). If he is vying for a late-career vocation as a Clint Eastwood-style jack of all trades, he has a long way to go.

  • LARRY CROWNE

    ★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content.

    RottenTomatoes.com: read reviews

    Showtimes: view listings

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