I'm not going to lie: I had high hopes for Larry Crowne (Universal Pictures), a romantic comedy directed by, co-written by, and starring Tom Hanks, about a recently laid-off man who goes back to college and falls for his teacher. Some critics I know entered the screening room already scoffing in anticipation of these two middle-aged movie stars exchanging light banter on a scooter. I was primed for light banter on a scooter. Tom Hanks in comic mode can be a delight—his voicing of Woody the cowboy in the Toy Story movies counts as one of the great movie performances of our time. And Julia Roberts, who got on my nerves in her Erin Brockovich, America's-sweetheart days, has mellowed into an effortlessly self-assured leading lady. Her dry, understated line readings can elevate even a mediocre script. But this script—a collaboration between Hanks and Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding — would need multiple punch-up sessions to attain mediocrity. Roberts and Hanks aren't just prevented from playing their A games; they're never even taken off the bench.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Vardalos' wildly successful tale of a Hellenic family in low-stakes crisis, took place in a comfortably familiar, if cloying, rom-com universe; Larry Crowne takes place in no recognizable universe at all. Neither the relationship of the two leads, nor any encounter between any of the film's other humans, seems to proceed according to the emotional or sociological customs of our culture. In what isolated village of the San Fernando Valley do people behave like this, and how can I be sure never to go there?
Larry Crowne (Hanks) works as a manager at a Target-like store called UMart. He loves his job, as we learn in an opening-title sequence that shows him lovingly adjusting the product displays and policing the parking lot for litter. One morning, his corporate-drone boss (Rob Riggle) calls him in and fires him, spouting MBA-speak about how Larry's lack of a college degree is hindering his advancement. (Is a severance package offered? How generous or ungenerous is it? These questions are not just glossed over but ignored by the curiously detail-free screenplay.)
Unemployed and recently divorced, his mortgage underwater, Larry goes into free-fall—but this being a relentlessly upbeat movie, it's a short fall onto a feather mattress. After a failed shot at applying for retail work, he enrolls at a local community college to get his degree. His professors include Ed Matsutani, Ph.D. (George Takei), a strict economics prof with a disturbingly sinister laugh, and Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), a teacher of speech and English who's burned out on both her job and her marriage. (I'll give the script this: Mercedes Tainot is a cool character name.) A young hippie-chick classmate, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), takes Larry under her wing the first day of school. She offers some fashion advice ("A tucked-in polo shirt makes you look like a cop,") then invites him along on a scooter excursion with her friends. (The near-broke Larry has recently downsized from a gas-guzzling van to a scooter.)
This subplot about the scooter gang is a good place to examine where Larry Crowne goes wrong. There's something off about the whole thing. First of all, the sheer size of the group: There must be 15 or 20 people buzzing by every time we see them scoot. Yet we never see the faces, let alone learn the names or stories, of any members other than Talia and her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama), who gets a few lines—one of them mildly funny!—about how he's jealous of Larry. Secondly: Why does this band of young, multi-ethnic "cool" kids (there's a painful moment when they snap their fingers in unison to denote their shared cool) cotton to this dorky older dude? Larry is not without his charms—he's played by Tom Hanks, after all—but there's never a scene in which the faceless scooter horde encounters those charms. The bond between Larry and the scooter crew feels synthetic, contrived solely for the purposes of providing the character with a cheering section.
There's something undercooked about Larry Crowne, a first-draft quality that makes me want to sharpen a red pencil and line-edit Hanks' and Vardalos' script. First editorial suggestion: Scrap the scooter gang. Better yet, scrap all the secondary characters and start from scratch. Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson play Larry's next-door neighbors, who provide him with pep talks while holding a perpetual yard sale. Pam Grier plays Mercedes' teaching colleague who supplies similar moral support, dispensing you-go-girl bromides as Roberts jogs on a treadmill. (At one point, the two white leads get back-to-back inspirational-black-friend montages, making this movie a shoo-in for this year's Magical Negro award.) Several early scenes hint that Mercedes is an incipient alcoholic—she rushes home from morning classes to fix herself fruity blender drinks—but this thread is entirely dropped, as if falling in love were an addiction cure-all. And the character of Mercedes' husband (Bryan Cranston), a lazy, porn-surfing failed novelist, has to be Julia Roberts' least-nuanced cinematic husband since Sleeping With the Enemy.
Still, buried deep inside this thoroughly fake movie are a couple of tiny moments that gesture toward the film that could've been, had the original idea (which Hanks conceived more than a decade ago)been developed by better writers. Both come when Hanks and Roberts are alone on-screen, far from the scooting crowd and the inspiring ethnic buddies. The scene where Roberts and Hanks first kiss on her doorstep—she's drunk and devil-may-care, he's sober and terrified—contains a spark of genuine romance, one or two laugh-out-loud lines, and a funny bit of business involving a home alarm system. Later, he stares at her over the lunch counter where he's working with a look that, for the first and only moment in this blandly inoffensive movie, clearly spells "sex." Yes, the fiftysomething Hanks and the fortysomething Roberts are older than most rom-com stars, but it's not the stars' age that makes Larry Crowne so discomforting. It's the movie's lazy reliance on their veteran Hollywood charm. "Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts fall in love" is a pitch, not a plot. Get me rewrite.