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'Larry Crowne' plays for laughs at expense of promising plot

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts give strong performances in a film that mostly feels like the pilot for a sitcom that needs to set up several comic situations instead of what could have been a very poignant drama about changing your life.
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Who knew that getting downsized could be such a "laff riot?"

Where "Company Men" found stark drama, even tragedy, in losing a job, Tom Hanks, ever the optimist, sees an opportunity for laughs and romance. The title character in "Larry Crowne" has his life go suddenly out of balance — and the film experiences a similar problem. Sure, the film is a romantic comedy starring Hanks and Julia Roberts, but every scene is on the prowl for laughs at the expense of the inherent drama in the lives of its colorful characters.

Fans of the two stars — among the most popular actors in Hollywood over the past two decades-plus — probably won't mind the light, sitcom approach, but there was a much more meaningful, if somewhat darker, movie in the story Hanks dreamed up with the help of Nia Vardalos. Positioned perfectly for a July 4 weekend release, the film, which sees Hanks performing multiple duties of director, co-writer, co-producer and star, should be a winner at the box office.

The problematic approach is evident in the film's first key scene. Hanks' Larry Crowne, an affable middle-level manager of a big-box store, gets fired when new ownership dislikes the fact that he never went to college. But the scene is played for comedy. Certainly you can see the pain in Larry's face, but the managers doing the dirty deed are smug, unfeeling caricatures.

This continues throughout the film. Roberts' character, Mercedes, a burnt-out public-speaking teacher, is caught up in a disastrously crumbling marriage. Her husband (Bryan Cranston) has gone from a respected published author to a deadbeat who surfs the Internet for porn. What caused such a profound change in the man — not to mention Mercedes' sour attitude toward her job and students — is never investigated but rather used as the source for further comedy.

"Larry Crowne" mostly feels like the pilot for a sitcom that needs to set up several comic situations. Underwater with his mortgage and out of work, Larry holds a yard sale, which sets up the first situation: His neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson), living off the earnings of a big game-show win, hold daily yard sales, where the comic banter, bargaining and advice-giving fill several of the movie's scenes.

Larry then decides to go to a community college, where the speech class taught by Mercedes and an Economics 1 course taught by George Takei's weirdly funny professor set up two more sets of characters. Finally, when Larry trades in his gas-guzzling SUV for a motorbike, he gets recruited into a motorcycle "gang" headed by the vivacious Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her boyfriend Dell (Wilmer Valderrama).

Indeed, Talia — a dangerously beautiful young woman who develops a flirtatious relationship with the middle-aged Larry right under the wary eyes of her boyfriend — gives Larry a complete make-over: She performs feng shui on his house, redoes his entire wardrobe and threatens to completely distract the romantic comedy away from Hanks and Roberts. Even Mercedes assumes for much of the movie that they're a couple.

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Hanks has a lot of good ideas for a comedy about a man remaking his life, but he might have chosen the wrong writing partner in Vardalos. Her comic writing tends toward on-the-money scenes with her main characters and pure caricatures for all her minor ones. She got away with this — boy, did she ever! — in the hugely successful "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which Hanks produced. But here, the determination to go for easy laughs undermines any chance for meaty drama.

This is especially true for Roberts' Mercedes. If you didn't cast this role with a star who can bring her own charisma and personality to the role, you might not even like this character. She's closer to Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" than the writers no doubt intended — a drunk married to a drunk who seemingly lives to fight with her spouse. Plus, her nastiness toward Larry and her hot-and-cold relationship with him make you wonder why he's even interested in her. But, of course, you do know because she's Julia Roberts and he's Tom Hanks.

Somehow, the movie keeps getting distracted from its own story — how a man reinvents himself and in so doing finds the woman of his dreams. The key problem might be the totally passive nature of its protagonist. In the opening scenes, Larry is shown as a proactive employee full of initiative. Understandably, he loses some of that drive when he gets fired. But from this point on, circumstances and other characters force him to change. He only goes along for the ride when Talia redoes his hair, attire and household or when a drunken Mercedes comes on to him. Even when he does land a job as a short-order cook, it isn't his idea. How long will it be before Mercedes is ridiculing Larry like she did her husband?

Hanks gets good performances from his cast — and that includes himself. He may, if anything, underplay his scenes to let others, especially those playing the speech students, get a chance to shine individually.

Hanks' crew does a fine if undistinguished job on various locations in the Los Angeles area. The junior-college campus and classrooms, the homes, streets, coffee shop and offices all seem very pleasant, which, again, somewhat undermines the grim reality of joblessness in America.