A pinch of cinnamon, a dash of sugar or a drop of Tabasco has enhanced many a disastrous, dried-out holiday feast, but even the combined flavors of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts can’t salvage a turkey like Larry Crowne.
During a surfeit of vampires, vulgarity, 3-D action comic books, CGI effects and worse, I applaud Mr. Hanks’s effort to write, produce and direct a harmless romantic comedy that exists for no other reason than unpretentious entertainment, but even with nothing else on its mind, a so-called “comedy” should engage the senses on some level besides the funny bone. This one just lays there like road kill.
The title character is a middle-aged man who works in a chain store opening boxes and pushing long links of used shopping carts through the parking lot. He’s likeable and hard-working, he’s been voted Employee of the Month nine times, and he’s in line for a promotion. Instead, he finds himself a victim of corporate “restructuring,” a modern term for “You’re fired!” Why? Because he never went to college. How could he? He spent 20 years in the Navy instead. On top of that, his wife leaves him and takes his assets, he can’t get a loan because his house is not worth what he owes, and he has to dispose of everything, including his treasured old record collection, exchange his gas-guzzling suburban S.U.V. for a moped, and put his house on the market. Humiliated and hurt, with no job and no prospects, he cheerfully (he’s always cheerful, even when life kicks him in the gonads) enrolls in a community college. It’s not Harvard, but neither are the teachers.
Julia Roberts plays a disillusioned, sour-faced public-speaking professor named Mercedes Tainot (where do they get these names?) who teaches students to give lectures on “pop topics” such as the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. She hates her job, convinced she’s wasting her time, but Larry knows that underneath that pickle puss is a gooey Julia Roberts grin and a honking Julia Roberts laugh just waiting to explode. Before it does, we get a glimpse of her home life (too much alcohol, marriage to a slacker geek who spends the day watching internet pornography, inevitable divorce). While waiting for her to thaw, Larry works as a short order cook in a greasy spoon diner, mastering the art of French toast and, with his new haircut and the alias “Lance Corona,” joins a motorcycle gang with a passion for feng shui. Would I lie to you? Who could make these things up?
In an endurance test of 99 minutes that feels more like running a marathon on the Equator, nothing ever happens in this movie. There is no conflict. The characters are dead on arrival. Except for a walk-on by Rita Wilson (better known as Mrs. Tom Hanks) I’ve never heard of anyone in the supporting cast, for reasons that become instantly clear. This is odd, since Mr. Hanks knows so much about acting that I expected him, at the very least, to coax a few memorable performances out of his fellow players through osmosis, if nothing else. But nothing rubs off. They’re a dull lot. Nothing sparks to life. Told in short vignettes, the film lacks shape, the lazy jokes take too long to set up, and the pauses following the punch lines seem to be waiting for a laugh track. Even the stars fail to muster much personality. When teacher and student finally kiss, it’s both unconvincing and preposterous. Who is to blame? Is it the star, who rarely makes mistakes in pulling the strings of his own career? Or was it his co-writer, Nia Vardalos, who concocted the dreadful farce My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Somebody must be held accountable for clunky, unspeakable dialogue like “You’re whining like a goo-goo ga-ga baby.” Explaining her drunk scene the night before, Ms. Roberts says “I was worked up and under the influence of the demon rum.” I mean, who talks like that outside the pages of paperbacks for hyper-thyroidal teens sold in airport departure lounges?
I wouldn’t go so far as announcing that Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have passed their prime, but even if you wander into this congealed mess with nothing more demanding in mind than to spend a little time with two charming favorites, do not expect Forrest Gump or Pretty Woman. Congenial is the word for Larry Crowne, but it’s as flat as an ironing board.
Running time 99 minutes
Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Tom Hanks
Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts