By far the most difficult movies to review are those like Larry Crowne. I can easily rhapsodize about Tron: Legacy or pour out a thousand words of bile over Transformers: Dark of the Moon because I feel something one way or the other about them. But after sitting down for a couple hours with Tom Hanks’ latest project the most I can muster unbidden is “so?”
The titular Mr. Crowne (Hanks) is an exemplary worker at U-Mart, winning eight employee of the month awards. And yet when the budget axe falls he’s first on the chopping block for his lack of any college experience. A self-admittedly inferior colleague with three years at Chico State was even promoted to management above him. Evidently his two decades of honorable naval service count for nothing, which strikes a false note for me, but we move on.
In an effort to improve his situation, Larry sets out to East Valley Community College, where he falls in with a scooter gang through the quirky Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her jealous boyfriend Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama). The dean of students (Holmes Osborne) steers Larry in the direction of Composition 101 (unseen), Economics 101 taught by Dr. Ed Matsutani (George Takei), and Speech 217 taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts).
Mercy has her own troubles, though it’s not clear how much is due to the usual mid-career crisis of an educator faced with a terminally disinterested student body and how much is due to having to put up with a layabout, porn-surfing husband (Bryan Cranston). Either way, she deals with it through functional alcoholism, which Roberts communicates through crossed eyes and some inventive contortions of her gymnastic lips.
So anyway, Larry has to take this course, which will help him Improve Himself. He will also learn valuable lessons from his econ class, trade advice with Talia, and generally pull himself up. Mercy will also come through with her load lightened and a renewed enthusiasm for her life. These are not spoilers because this is the only possible way this movie could go: it’s nice.
But that’s all that it is. There’s never any real conflict. Dell is territorial, but never actually acts against Larry. Larry does lost his job, but that’s just the setup; it’s all uphill from there. The closest thing there is to a confrontation is negotiating at the perpetual yard sale run by the lottery winner across the street (Cedric the Entertainer). As a story drawn from our current economic climate this is a pale, pale shadow of The Company Men.
There’s also no romance. Sure, Larry’s a nice guy — he’s Tom freaking Hanks, after all — but who wouldn’t look like a prince to someone just extricating herself from such a jerk as Mercy’s husband? No effort is ever expended nor action taken. And there’s really no other reason for her to be in this movie; her situation doesn’t really parallel Larry’s the way it would in a well-constructed story to reinforce some sort of message or point.
The only thing that I really had much reaction to at all was the too-cute-by-half rendition of text messages. As a device, it mostly put me in mind of You’ve Got Mail — Hanks’ last real romantic comedy. That one was written, directed, and produced by Nora Ephron, who also wrote and directed Hanks’ last romantic comedy before that: Sleepless in Seattle. Those also both starred Meg Ryan, with whom Hanks actually had some amount of chemistry.
But here we’ve swapped out Ryan for a supposedly bigger name draw, and Hanks has decided to do the production, direction, and writing himself, with some writing help from the increasingly-toothless Nia Vardalos. Clearly he should have stuck with a winning formula.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: it’s negotiable but I’m going to say it barely passes.