★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ( ZERO STARS )
Rated PG13/99 min.
Larry Crowne (played by Tom Hanks) is a recently divorced and hopelessly square, middle aged man who has just lost his job at the U-Mart. Because Crowne served in the military but has no college degree or a back-up plan, he enrolls in college and is immediately smitten with his teacher, named Mercy and played by Julia Roberts. Whereas Mercy has no passion for her job, Crowne, who tucks in his polo shirt, collects LP’s and typifies white and nerdy, is a boisterous dork who energizes everyone he meets.
Though Hanks directed and co-wrote the film with Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), it’s as awesomely lame as Larry Crowne himself. I love Hanks and wanted to welcome his return to comedy but his new movie is dull, dumb and an ordeal the whole way. His directorial debut, the rock musical That Thing You Do!, was genuinely charming and wonderful; Larry Crowne, by comparison, is so syrupy, cutesy-poo and corny that it makes That Thing You Do! look like The Doors.
The opening scene, where Crowne is fired, oddly resembles the scene in Philadelphia where Hanks was also canned from his job, but that movie had style and dramatic interest, whereas this crawls from the beginning. Hanks has a climactic speech that will remind audiences how likable and authentic an actor he can be even in a movie like this, but he fails to fully connect with the part.
Crowne lacks the definition of either Forest Gump or even Joe Banks and is more of a flimsy sketch character than a fully baked role for an entire movie. Roberts is still one of the prettiest women at the movies but this is easily her worst performance; she’s phoned it in before, but in this movie, she only plays two notes: smiling and not smiling.
The script is a big culprit as to why this doesn’t work and I blame Vardalos as much as Hanks, who should have thought twice before collaborating with the creator of “Connie and Carla.” There’s a mean-spirited subplot involving Mercy’s husband, who is obsessed with big-busted women, that throws the movie permanently out of whack. Likewise, the inclusion of the as-stupid-as-it-sounds gang of scooter enthusiasts.
The focus is mostly on Crowne bumbling his way through Mercy’s class but the only scenes that really work feature George Takei (Mr. Sulu!) as Crowne’s other teacher. The movie should have been about Takei’s Dr. Matsutani, who is hands down the most amusing figure here. Hanks is clearly trying to make an old fashioned, Preston Sturges-type romantic comedy and you have to give him credit for putting Takei, Pam Grier and Cedric the Entertainer in the same movie.
I want to cut the movie a break, as it means well but there are few laughs and the logic and feel of a bad live action children’s film. In addition to wasting the time of a talented cast, the movie wastes ours as well. There’s a great closing song by ELO and anyone who rides down Haleakala highway to work in a scooter may feel empowered after seeing this, but this movie is cornier than a barrel of rubber chickens.
Hanks began his career with comedies (most of them great) and progressed to a series of remarkable dramatic vehicles, with the farces fewer in between the serious minded Oscar baiters. This should have been a return to form but actually, any five minutes of Splash or Bosom Buddies is superior. ■