The harmless film Larry Crowne opens with the harmless Larry (Tom Hanks) getting fired from his job at a Wal-Mart-like big-box store in the San Fernando Valley. Although the story quickly proceeds through familiar hallmarks of recent years — the fruitless job search, the necessary yard sales and looming foreclosure — this is not a recession story. Hanks, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with his friend Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), isn’t trying to bring anyone down. Larry Crowne is a reinvention tale, at times cloying, but not without small charms. It’s about as substantial as a pep rally and serves the same function.
Larry has long been U-Mart’s most conscientious employee. In the morning he scans the empty parking lot with happy anticipation of another day in retail sales. But as they let him go, his bosses explain that since Larry didn’t go to college, he can’t advance in management. (Should he have joined a class action suit? Oh, right — no point.) He joined the Navy right out of high school, cooked his way around the world on ships for 20 years. He’s humble and kind, a swell guy. In another era, Jimmy Stewart could have played him.
On the advice of his jovial neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs a perpetual yard sale on his front lawn with his wife B’Ella (Taraji Henson), Larry enrolls at a community college. He tells the dean he wants to make sure he’s never downsized again (and no one squashes his hopes by telling him that college provides no such protection). Part of his plan is to downsize his own lifestyle; he leaves his gas guzzler in the driveway and uses a scooter, courtesy of Lamar, to get about the San Fernando Valley. Brave man.
The prop speaks volumes about the movie. If there is a cuter, peppier mode of transport than a scooter, I haven’t seen it. It’s the careful placement of the feet that does it: dainty, a little mannered, the mechanized version of riding sidesaddle. Arriving to school by scooter, Larry immediately falls in with a cozy little campus clique of fellow scooter enthusiasts, headed by bubbly Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Talia takes Larry under her wing: she shows him how to text, nicknames him Lance Corona and reforms his hair and wardrobe. She buzzes around him with such bubbly goodwill that his prickly public-speaking teacher (and love interest, naturally), Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Julia Roberts), is prompted to remark, “What do men see in irritating free spirits?”
Thank you, Mercy. Your bitterness is overdone, but at least you provide the voice of reason here. Talia is, sadly, the only means Hanks and Vardalos came up with to get Larry from Point A (dorkiness) to Point B (worthy of wooing the hot teacher). The nine other students taking Mercy’s class, “Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks,” are an agreeable enough lot, although wholly predictable. There’s the hearty athlete (Grace Gummer), the texting dope (Rami Malek) and the shy middle-aged lady (Maria Canals-Barrera). Larry’s economics professor (George Takei) is cutely eccentric. The whole community-college gang is the diet version of the Danish movie Italian for Beginners, a more charming tale featuring grown-ups going back to school.
Hanks is endearing and Roberts is as deft as ever with unchallenging material; he’s Tom, she’s Julia. Don’t worry, be happy. I’d take Larry Crowne to task for its lack of tension, but I don’t believe Hanks or Vardalos ever had narrative tension on their radar. Casting Roberts as the love interest is a guarantee that Larry is going to be just fine. Theirs is a placid romance — Mercy and Larry share one long kiss that’s more like a wrestling match than anything sensual — but then again, this is a staid movie aimed at an older audience. Edgeless, it takes a wistful, hopeful approach to heartbreak and job loss. That’s sweet, but when it comes to unemployment-themed cinema, I’ll take the greater realism of last year’s The Company Men or this year’s Everything Must Go over Hanks’s too rosy vision of life after the pink slip.