It's hard to imagine a gentler romantic comedy than "Larry Crowne," the story of a downsized big-box store worker who tries his hand at higher education. It's populated by sweet characters possessed of a genuine sense of community and generosity of spirit. There's precious little swearing and no sex or violence, and the worst vice portrayed (at least by someone we're supposed to like) is the medicinal administration of frozen margaritas. But there's one problem with a movie this good-natured and conflict averse: It's boring.
"Larry Crowne" is more of an idea for a movie than a movie. It asks what would happen if a loyal megastore worker was let go after being denied a promotion under company policy because of lack of college experience. What if that man, a divorced ex-Navy man with a crushing mortgage, decided to try college for the first time? But this turns out to be less a premise than a point of departure. Larry, played by Tom Hanks, isn't going back to school to rack up enough credits to qualify for a front office job in retail. He's just there to be in position to meet the magical group of young people who will outfit him for this new phase of his life.
Chief among Larry's new college crew is Talia, played by the unbearably cute English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She meets Larry while they are parking their motor scooters on campus. (Scooter riding is depicted here as a kind of recessionary indulgence - light on gas and heavy on retro chic.) Irrepressible and enthusiastic, Talia helps Larry replace his fusty clothes with vintage hipster duds, complete with wallet chain. She pares back the clutter in his overstuffed house and sets him up with a haircut that is meant to be fashionable but looks like it was peeled off of a Pep Boy. All the while, Larry is looking for a chance to impress his professor, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), a leggy-but-brainy language arts specialist who is faced with doubts about her career and her failing marriage.
Mr. Hanks, Hollywood's most durable everyman type since Jimmy Stewart, seems like a natural for the title part. Miss Roberts is as wry and sassy as ever. But "Larry Crowne" is all ingredients and no cooking. There's no drama about Larry getting his groove back, because he never really loses it. While he's out of work, and has no income, he doesn't appear to be conspicuously down at the heels. His financial problems stem largely from having borrowed to buy out his ex-wife's share of the house. There's not much drama about Larry's college experience. He gets by without much trouble - and so do the people around him.
There's a whiff of condescension about all this. In real life, a fifty-something blue collar Navy veteran with an underwater mortgage and no job would be faced with a host of problems - and few would stumble into a community of upbeat millennial do-it-yourselfers who save the day.
"Larry Crowne" undoubtedly had its genesis in a desire to make a movie that spoke to today's economic hard times, but the result is just a bland star vehicle that goes nowhere.
TITLE: "Larry Crowne"
CREDITS: Directed by Tom Hanks; written by Mr. Hanks and Nia Vardalos
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS