Anyone who has seen any posters for Larry Crowne knows that there’s a middle-aged star at the center of this gummy, aspirational romantic comedy. I’m talking, of course, about the 1983 Yamaha Riva 180 scooter upon whose banana seat Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts perch like vibrant baby boomers who have just saved 15 percent on motorized-bike insurance. Well-loved Hanks and Roberts may be the human horsepower pulling in audiences for this middle-of-the-road, recession-era Hollywood diversion. But when the credits roll after the predetermined happy ending, all that is likely to remain in your memory is the retro cuteness of that four-stroke Riva 180 and the movie’s gang of even cooler Italian models into whose jaunty company the little scoot falls. It’s always nice to get a visit from Tom and Julia (even if you’re left wondering when the gentleman and lady became mature ambassadors from the land of gallant pre-Twitter celebrity). But just like the generic name of the title character, they are too easily forgotten here.
Following a high-saturation prerelease promotional campaign, the premise of Larry Crowne is already known to millions: Larry (Hanks) is fired from his worker-bee job at a big-box store on grounds that his lack of a college education has made him unpromotable. So he enrolls in community-college classes. (Never mind that the enthusiastic worker has been Employee of the Month nine times over, and that he’s got 20 years of U.S. Navy service behind him.) Anyhow — and this is important — for his college commute, Larry garages his gas-guzzling SUV in favor of the aforementioned mini-wheels, picked up at the permanent yard sale run by his zany neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer). In the way of the ever-so-faintly condescending, upbeat big box of a script co-written by Hanks and My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos, we learn random stuff that doesn’t pay off: Larry is divorced (with no kids) for unknown reasons from a phantom wife; he’s carrying a hefty mortgage on his nice suburban house; he has a huge, valuable collection of vinyl records; and his banker, whose narrative job it is to explain to the audience the effect of our country’s current economic crisis on average folks like Larry, is played by Rita Wilson, Mr. Hanks’ likable actual wife.
As it happens, between the scooter and the inspirational American gumption to pick himself up and dust himself off, life begins looking up for Larry. First, the professor in his Welcome Back, Kotter-like public speaking class turns out to be Julia Roberts — or at least a wry, pretty, unhappily married, burned-out teacher named Mercedes into whom the real Julia Roberts pours her iconic smiles, giggles, moues, and adorable throat clearings. (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays Mercedes’ lemon of a husband, a belittled cartoon man given absolutely no redeeming qualities and thus safely audience-approved for ditching.) Then Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw from TV’s short-lived Undercovers), a perky, sexy classmate and fellow scooter enthusiast (she rocks a rare Italjet Bella Figura), adopts Larry as her own personal What Not to Wear project. She remakes his image so that, shed of a dorky haircut, dorky eyeglasses, dorky khakis, and a dorky tucked-in polo shirt, the real Tom Hanks inside Larry can shine through. Thus does Larry’s inner Hanks soften and brighten Mercedes’ inner Roberts. For added color, Star Trek’s George Takei plays an economics professor who sounds like Mr. Sulu. Plus there’s a motor parade!
Larry Crowne marks Tom Hanks’ first work as a director since his delightful That Thing You Do! 15 years ago. And now, as then, the star demonstrates a generous instinct for calm, steady pacing and cleanly framed scenes that acknowledge every character’s place in the whole, whether in the classroom, on the streets, or in the working world: When, for example, Larry draws on his Navy skills to take a job as a short-order cook, Hanks the director observes the work of every diner employee with genuine interest. Such classic decency counts for a lot, making it easier for Hanks and his big-name costar to blend in as ”regular” people, each of whom is trying to get out of a rut. It’s easy enough to accept the romantic-comedy luck of the two finding each another. It’s much tougher, and ultimately useless, to buy everything else about this fairy tale of self-reinvention in a stalled economy. C+