Let it not be forgotten that, as a co-producer with his wife Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks was responsible for foisting Nia Vardalos’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding on the world. Nine years later, he and Vardalos now join screenwriting forces for more aw-shucks feel-great pap with Larry Crowne, the mushy tale of a working-class Navy vet, the titular Larry (Hanks), who loses his job and recovers from this unexpected catastrophe by attending college, where he effortlessly makes friends with a young beauty, becomes hip, proves to be a superb student, regains control of his finances, and oh yes, also winds up successfully wooing his unhappy teacher (played by Julia Roberts). It’s a tale of a good guy who, after an unfair professional setback—which comes after an obliquely referenced divorced that furthers his poor-average-Joe status—wins, wins, and wins some more. It’s hard to remember a film with less actual conflict or, consequently, nuance, as Hanks’s second directorial effort after 1996’s That Thing You Do! (whose rock-music atmosphere is channeled here through numerous Tom Petty soundtrack cuts) draws a straight line from unhappiness to happiness, super-happiness, and all-out triumphant bliss, a trajectory whose utter lack of complication is mirrored by Larry himself.
A goofball first introduced having a gee-whiz blast at his U-Mart retail job, Larry is fired because his lack of a college education retards his climb up the corporate ladder. Adrift, he’s encouraged by his tag sale-running neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson) to enroll at community college, where he takes the public-speaking class of Ms. Tainot (Roberts), who favors dark sunglasses to mitigate hangovers created by the boozing she does to cope with a porn-loving loser husband (Brian Cranston) and students who just don’t “care.” Enter Larry, a wholesome, guileless ray of sunshine, though Ms. Tainot doesn’t immediately recognize Larry—who’s also a star pupil in George Takei’s economics class—as the embodiment of charming perfection, too busy is he off gallivanting with striking twentysomething “free spirit” Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Laughably intoxicated by Larry’s puppy-dog charisma, Talia gets him a new haircut, redecorates his house, and texts him in Takai’s class, which drives the professor to regularly confiscate the middle-aged Larry’s smart phone (he’s just like a teenager!). More preposterously contrived still, Talia and Larry bond over their ownership of motor scooters, leading her to make him a member of a scooter gang run by her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama), who continually glares at Larry after catching him in apparently compromising circumstances with Talia.
Valderrama and Takei’s reaction shots are the only feeble sources of humor in this dramedy, which primarily pats Larry on the back for being a pure soul who—as implied by his concern over his car’s gas bill, and sadness over not getting to raise kids at the house he and his wife purchased together—Hanks unsubtly casts as a struggling 2011 everyman just like you and me. Except that he’s not; Larry is a blessed saint living in a magical America that grants him his wildest dreams, as well as sticks it to his former jerk bosses (Larry, naturally, takes little pleasure from this). Larry Crowne is more than just an uplifting character drama; it’s like the offspring of a dream, a fairy tale, and a euphoric drug hallucination about overcoming topical obstacles, all embellished with “current” jokes such as Tainot’s co-worker (Pam Grier) blaming Twitter and Facebook for kids’ short-attention spans.
As a director, Hanks gussies up his flat, flabby visuals with a few gimmicky compositions (a shot affixed to a car’s rear bumper, for example), and as his one-note protagonist, he vacillates between doofy smiles and earnest brooding. Tainot is no more developed a caricature, but at least Roberts has some star wattage to burn; her megawatt smile is the only thing that ultimately pierces, however faintly, the film’s blinding schmaltz.