In 1996, Tom Hanks made his writing-directing debut with the harmless but charming That Thing You Do. After writing and directing episodes of the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, Hanks has returned to feature films with Larry Crowne. While his direction remains competent and innocuous, his screenplay, which he co-wrote with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) relies far too heavily on meaningless quirks and undercooks both the title character’s development and his romance with his public speaking teacher, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts). Larry Crowne manages to deliver a steady stream of laughs, but like everything else in the movie, they feel unearned.
Larry Crowne (Hanks) is a former Navy cook who has spent the past several years happily working at a Walmart-style big box store. Despite receiving the award for Employee of the Month nine times, Larry is fired because he doesn’t have a college education. Why a company would fire one of their best employees instead of simply asking that he take college courses while continuing to work at the store is overlooked so the story can have Larry leave his comfortable existence to learn more about life or something. Burdened with a house he can’t afford and unable to find a new job without a college diploma, Larry enrolls in the nicest community college of all time and signs up for a public speaking course taught by the disaffected and depressed Ms. Tainot. However, it seems like he receives more education from Manic Pixie Dream Girl Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as she changes his wardrobe, his apartment, and basically makes him over much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama).
The relationship between Larry and Talia feels like the one that’s supposed to develop into a romance. Talia is far more active in Larry’s life, but the script withholds Larry from returning her affections because he’s supposed to end up with Mercedes. Why Mercedes? Presumably because she’s played by Julia Roberts and Ms. Roberts always gets her man. But Hanks and Vardalos never write any meaningful development between the two characters. Tainot seems to openly despise Larry for the majority of the first act and then she drunkenly warms to him when he gives her a ride on his scooter after she has a huge fight with her husband (a disappointingly underutilized Bryan Cranston). By the time we’re part way through the second act, Larry and Mercedes are attracted to each other even though they hardly spent any time together for the first forty-five minutes of the movie. It’s as if Hanks and Vardalos said “Well, too late to turn back now! Let’s just hope chemistry carries the day.” It doesn’t. Hanks and Roberts can only do so much working within the framework of a non-existent relationship.
This anemic development is a problem that permeates all of Larry Crowne. The public speaking class doesn’t seem that important to Larry’s character because we know he’s not shy or has trouble explaining himself. Rather, it’s simply a forum for wacky supporting characters (with Rami Malek and Malcolm Barrett stealing the show) to give amusing presentations. Larry gets a scooter and joins up with a gang of scooter enthusiasts because it’s quirky and only because it’s quirky. His sage neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) is a lotto winner who is running a perpetual yard sale because that sure is wacky. Larry’s economics professor is played by George Takei doing George Takei. There’s no character there other than George Takei who was most likely asked to Takei it up a notch. That’s partially a bad pun on my part and partially the honest truth: none of the humor of the character is on the page and all of it comes from knowing that you’re watching George Takei.
None of this stands for something real or relatable. Some of it works at getting laughs but they’re cheap laughs. Rarely does anyone make a clever quip or play out a smart joke. It’s all just oddball without the risk of doing anything truly strange that could possibly alienate the middle-class, middle-age target audience. Larry Crowne wants to be an uplifting tale about a middle-aged man bettering himself and getting the girl, but at best it’s an amusing but heartless diversion.