Hanks and Roberts Charm in 'Larry Crowne'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Tom Hanks is still, after all these years, the best Tom Hanks that the American cinema has to offer. And, as it happens, Julia Roberts is still the best Julia Roberts in our national film culture. Those are the two most crucial points driven home by "Larry Crowne," the new film co-starring Hanks and Roberts that was also co-written (with -- yikes! -- "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" auteur Nia Vardalos, a not infrequent beneficiary of Hanks' largesse) and directed by Hanks. One reason it drives those points home so strongly is that it takes its own sweet time putting its stars in their most familiar modes. This problematic but winning-in-the-ways-it-wants-to romantic comedy begins in a near-disastrous farce mode, with loyal big-box store employee Crowne -- Hanks, and I could almost swear the character's first line is "It's not just policy; it's the right thing to do," in case you were looking for a thumbnail sketch of the guy right off the bat -- getting a too-awkward downsizing, for the rather odd rationale that he had never attended college (having landed the retail gig after a lengthy stint in the Navy).
Thus dispatched, he confronts economic disaster head-on: He comically commiserates with across-the-street neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), a mercenary-ish but lovable yard sale maven, and Lamar's sweet wife, B'Ella (Taraji P. Henson); buys himself a scooter as an alternative to his gas-guzzling SUV; enrolls in a local college; meets a rather unusually friendly young coed, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who invites him to ride with her lovable gang of fellow scooterists; and enrolls in the speech class of cranky and put-upon prof Mercedes Tainot (Roberts). The Hanks of the early scenes, being on the shell-shocked side, is more diffident than what we're used to. Similarly, Roberts' character is unhappy in her work and cursed with a creepy washed-up-author husband (Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad"), who's out of work and whose idea of making new-media inroads is looking at porn on the computer all day (that he is unaware that most Web browsers have a "clear history" function is indicative of just how much of a new media sharpie he really is). So she wears a sourpuss face for a good portion of the film, assumes that Larry's friendship with Talia is more than it really is (this misapprehension is shared by Talia's actual boyfriend, a quasi-tough played by an all-grown-up looking Wilmer Valderrama), and gets huffy about that. However, as Larry's confidence builds and his wardrobe mutates, and as the character begins to display the reliable Hanks earnestness and all-American charm, so, too, does the lemon-sucking Roberts façade begin to melt, certain -- the viewer will feel very confident of this -- to break into the trademark big-mouthed smile and laugh.
The script is often treacle and silly, and it's filled with little bits and conceits that are neither well-justified nor satisfactorily followed up, but it is kind of an exemplary structure. The picture appears to be very generous in doling out to its characters ample and ostensibly entertaining bits to execute. And since said characters' parts are being filled with really lively and appealing and sometimes unexpected performers (it's rather delightful to see Julia Roberts bantering with Pam Grier, still beauteous and formidable, playing an academic colleague), the bits really are entertaining. For instance, one-time Mr. Sulu George Takei makes a meal of his small role as a studiedly eccentric economics professor (his gratitude at being asked to actually act in an actual role is almost palpable), and manages to reference his iconic "Star Trek" role very definitely by implication only. (See, for contrast, the rather less nuanced work by Leonard Nimoy in the latest "Transformers" film.)
But the real prize bits at the end are, of course, reserved for the stars, and Hanks in particular is so convincingly but unprepossessingly sincere in his expression of good old American decency that you just wanna make a bundle out of him. And he brings a variant of that quality to his actual filmmaking as well. You'd have to be in a really bad mood to be put off by this picture's admittedly kind of unabashed eagerness to please. So if you're going to check it out, don't do so in a really bad mood.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.