Tom Hanks is at that point in his career where he can do whatever he wants. So a personal project like Larry Crowne, which Hanks writes, directs, and stars in, should suffer less from focus-group kowtowing than the average summer movie. But the film's lapses show that not even a comfortable, middle-aged Hollywood icon can get the kind of total artistic freedom he might exploit to create something memorable. Larry Crowne's sunny view of humanity and its moments of classroom comedy barely survive its more insulting, market-driven compromises.
As Larry, a hard-working cog in a Walmart style retail emporium, Hanks is his usual doughy, likable self. He is the kind of worker who embraces his daily chores with a gusto that makes his sudden firing not only cruel but unjust. Once he's let go, economic realities descend to challenge his spirit. There's some tart realism when Crowne, full of pluck and decency, hustles hard — and fails — to find any retail work. His decision to buy a scooter is prompted by a hard economic truth: It simply costs too much to fill up his SUV's gas tank.
Unfortunately, any resemblance between the world of Larry Crowne and the real world dissipates once Larry enrolls at a community college. From here on out, enjoying the film's simple pleasures requires a heroic willingness to ignore its metastasizing flaws.
It's one thing to establish that Larry's public-speaking class is composed of gentle cross-cultural types who form a pleasant safety net of support. It's another thing to look closely at the character responsible for Larry's image overhaul: a sexy deus ex machina named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who, before attending this school, definitely matriculated at Bagger Vance's Magical Negro Institute and scored high marks.
But just when this confused notion of humanist cinema threatens to swallow up Hanks & Co. in politically correct quicksand, a dissenting voice in the film asks, "What do men see in irritating free spirits?" That voice belongs to Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), the boozy, bored college professor whose world-weariness is pitted against Larry's unflagging optimism.
The winner of this battle is a foregone conclusion, of course, but the sequence when Hanks picks up a drunken, disillusioned Roberts at a bus stop and ends up making out with her at the end of the evening is the film's highlight. In these scenes, Roberts is as natural and watchable as she's ever been.Hanks deserves much credit for making Roberts interesting again. He and co-writer Nia Vardalos also have ears for the sarcasms and defense mechanisms many teachers use to maintain control and sanity. (In this vein, George Takei is superbly kooky as an economics professor who laughs robustly at his own sour jokes.) But this openhearted, villain-less film ultimately feels too tidy and pre-processed to be trusted.