“Larry Crowne” is such a perfectly pleasant movie that it may not be until you walk toward the exit that you realize that something is missing. Until then, the good spirits of stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, clearly enjoying themselves and each other as they beam their considerable star power our way keep us feeling if not entertained at least appreciated. Hanks, directing for the first time since his debut with the terrific “That Thing You Do” is immensely hospitable. He all but hands out milk and cookies to make the audience feel welcome, with a series of recession-era but sweetly comic scenes and quirky but endearing characters and a can’t miss theme of a man literally and metaphorically casting off the elements of his past that are holding him back and discovering that he is capable of taking on new challenges and new relationships.
But Hanks the star and director has a problem with Hanks the co-screenwriter (along with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s” Nia Vardelos). Something is missing from the story.
Of course we fall in love with Larry Crowne (Hanks) right from the opening credits. The very first thing we see him do is pick up trash in the parking lot on the way to his job at a big, WalMart-style store. Then in a quick montage we see that he always does more than expected and genuinely enjoys his job. He is ever-cheerful with colleagues and helpful with customers, and an eight-time winner of the “Employee of the Month” award. And then he gets fired. Our first clue that something is not right with the story is the over-the-top awfulness of the termination, but we let that pass because we want to see what he will do.
Larry is downsized because he does not have a college degree. He joined the Navy after high school, got out after 20 years as a culinary specialist (cook), and has been working at the store ever since. He is in a financial pinch because he bought out his ex-wife’s share of their home, which is now worth much less than its mortgage. A perky blonde bank representative (Hanks’ real-life wife, Rita Wilson) keeps offering him complimentary coffee as she gives him the bad news. Larry can’t find a new job and realizes he needs to go to college. He sells his gas guzzler and trades his flat-screen TV for a scooter.
Mercedes (Julia Roberts) is a teacher at the community college whose greatest hope is that fewer than 10 students will register for her classes so she can cancel. She feels very far from what she once aspired to, supporting a husband (“Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston) whose own aspirations have shrunk from novelist to comment on a blog. She once hoped to teach Shakespeare and Shaw. Now she teaches students who cannot even remember how to pronounce her name how to get up in front of the class and say something.
So we know where this is going, and we want it to go there, and the ingredients are all assembled. The situation is timely and engaging. The cast is exceptional. Larry has adorable neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson), and adorable classmates: the ravishingly lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the girl who gives Crowne a literally top-to-bottom makeover and introduces him to her scooter-riding gang, Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) as a lacrosse-player more comfortable on the field than in the classroom, “Night at the Museum’s” Rami Malek, sweet but a little dim. George Takei is marvelous as a professor of economics. Mercedes has a sympathetic colleague (the always-welcome Pam Grier).
But something is missing. All of Roberts’ movie star magic can’t make the character of Mercedes as appealing as she needs to be. We never get a sense of how she got to the slough of despond she is in and the character is so inconsistent she seems blurry. All of Roberts’ usual tricks, the dazzling smile, the laugh, the walk, can’t disguise the fact that while she tells her students what she is teaching them is to care, it is not clear to her or to them or to us that she has learned that lesson herself. There is no moment of change or connection or even notice to make us feel that there is a genuine basis for a relationship, and the ending is hurried and superficial. There is build-up without pay-off. I enjoyed spending time with these characters. I wish they were in a better movie.
Parents should know that this film includes images of scanty lingerie, references to online pornography, and some crude comments. Characters abuse alcohol and use some strong language (one f-word).
Family discussion: How did going to school lead Larry to make other changes? What can you tell about Larry from the first moments of the film when you see him on the job? How did Talia change Larry’s view of what was possible for him and how did Larry change Mercy’s view of what was possible for her?
If you like this, try: “That Thing You Do,” also written and directed by Tom Hanks, and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” also written by his co-author, Nia Vardalos. You might also enjoy another romantic comedy about adult education, “Teacher’s Pet” with Clark Gable and Doris Day.