Panning a Tom Hanks movie, especially one in which the modern-day Jimmy Stewart not only stars but is director and cowriter, feels like kicking a puppy. The guy was Forrest Gump, for crying out loud, and Woody in the Toy Story trilogy. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it: Larry Crowne is stupendously bad.
Hanks is Larry, exuberant mid-level manager at a Walmart-esque retail store. Expecting to hear he once again has been named employee of the month, he is shocked to learn he’s being fired. A company directive maintains that workers in his position can’t be promoted if they don’t have a college degree (Larry doesn’t), and can’t be retained if they can’t be promoted.
That premise could have made for a darkly bittersweet take on the death of the American dream for baby boomers stuck with underwater mortgages, a gas guzzler in the driveway and no good prospects for getting back on their feet. Instead, the movie devolves into empty-headed feel-good phoniness featuring painfully quirky supporting characters. (Larry Crowne co-writer Nia Vardalos previously struck gold with her similarly sitcom-ish screenplay and starring role in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which Hanks produced in 2002.)
Case in point: Larry’s huckster neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), despite being a wealthy lottery winner, now spends every day of his life running a never-ending front-yard garage sale. Sure he does.
Larry buys a cute motor scooter from Lamar and enrolls in community college. His economics professor (George Takei) is a deadpan bore with a justifiably unappreciated sense of humor. The only other class we see Larry taking is devoted to public speaking, taught by the sardonic and borderline alcoholic Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts).
Hanks and Roberts seem unable to make up their minds how to play their characters, and the backgrounds provided by the screenplay don’t give them much help. Larry sometimes comes off as so simple-minded he seems mentally handicapped, such as when he thrusts himself through Mercedes’ car window and across her body to fix her GPS. Larry acts like an excitable 14-year old after getting kissed in one scene, but appears as coolly sophisticated as James Bond during a later lip-lock. He’s also supposed to have been recently ditched by an ex-wife, but it’s hard to imagine the wide-eyed Mr. Nice Guy we see going through that kind of emotional trauma.
Meanwhile, Mercedes is bitchy and drinks because her unemployed writer husband Dean (a criminally misused Bryan Cranston) likes to surf softcore internet porn while she’s at work. When a marital spat leaves Mercedes stranded, Larry happens to be scootering past in time to give her a ride. Although Mercedes is angrily sober when Larry picks her up, she turns gigglingly, grabbingly and guffawingly drunk when deposited at her doorstep. Huh?
The movie’s most aggravating subplot involves the 20-something Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a class-ditching free spirit who entices Larry to join her gang of scooter riders. Her friendly-flirty overtures include giving Larry a hair-and-wardrobe makeover, repeatedly texting him and nicknaming him Lance Carona. It’s hard to say which is more annoying: Larry’s inexplicable lack of improper interest in this half-his-age hottie, or the fact that the whole set-up comes off like a silly Viagra commercial wish-fantasy for newly single middle-aged men.