Although this movie will hardly be anointed the comedy of the summer, it does benefit from the royalty cast as its leads. The pairing of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts brings a respite from super heroes and clanking robots, and it’s a welcome offering even though it has some weak spots, mainly its premise.
In the first few minutes of “Larry Crowne,” the titular character, played by Hanks, is let go from his job as the assistant manager of a Target-esque superstore for lacking a college degree. The corporate team sent in to let him go is unbelievably callous and smug, and that’s problem number one — it doesn’t make you feel any sorrier for Larry. It just seems too heartless watching them laugh it up and munch on pizza while he digests the bad news.Hanks co-wrote this with Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, whose comedy brand tends to go for the obvious and lacks a subtlety that a mid-life crisis of this proportion deserves. The subject of corporate downsizing and lay-offs was handled more honestly in the recent “The Company Men,” a John Wells film with a solid all-star cast. And while it is much more downbeat in nature, it treats this sensitive subject with the respect it should have.What ensues here is more fun, although with a fair amount of faulty credibility as Larry enrolls in a community college and things instantly begin to turn around for him. His speech class teacher, Mercedes (played by Roberts), is a hottie as noted by some of his classmates, but she’s also a little on the sour side. We learn later this is due to her bad marriage to her slacker writer, porn-addicted husband played by Bryan Cranston.
In his economics class, Larry meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a free spirit and fellow scooter rider (Larry has traded in his gas-guzzling SUV for a little Vespa) who sees before her a middle-aged man in bad need of a makeover. With a new haircut and the hipper duds she outfits him with, Larry’s outlook on life also improves, especially when Mercedes kicks out her husband.
There are very few stumbling blocks in Larry’s transformation from middle-aged middle manager to cool college student. His biggest problem, besides letting his house go back to the bank, is everyone seems to think he’s involved with Talia; even her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama) is a little jealous. So it takes most of the movie for Mercedes to realize Larry is not a cradle robber.
With such a simple storyline, it helps to have a great supporting cast, and this one is full of eccentric folks to which director Hanks gives generous screen time. Among the standouts are George Takei of “Star Trek” fame as a weirdly funny economics professor and Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as Larry’s neighbors who live off of their game show winnings while drawing income from the perpetual yard sale going on in their front yard. When they’re not wheeling and dealing, they give ol’ Larry some pretty decent advice.
Hanks, always a great everyman, is no disappointment. Likewise for Roberts, who pulls her burned-out, disillusioned teacher character back from the precipice not a moment too soon. Her only emotion for the first half of the movie is anger.
While this over-simplified comedy will not go down as any crowning achievement in Hanks’ career, it serves its purpose by providing some alternative entertainment to summer’s usual fare. It succeeds without any computer generated stunts, no ear-curdling special effects and costumed cartoon heroes. In a word, refreshing.