Stymied in Middle Age, Reaching for a New Life
“Larry Crowne” is a rom-com fairy tale so tepid and
well behaved that watching it feels like being stuck in traffic as giddy
joy-riders in the opposite lane break the speed limit. You have little
choice but to cool your heels and pretend that the parched crabgrass in
the median is a field of flowers.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a
motorcycle-riding free spirit, and Wilmer Valderrama portrays her
Any enjoyment will depend largely on your appreciation of the fact that a movie starring Tom Hanks (who directed) and Julia Roberts
is a rarity nowadays: a putatively adult Hollywood film featuring
certified grown-ups — Mr. Hanks is 54, and Ms. Roberts is 43 — who more
or less act their age. It is fair to say that several of the jokes
scattered throughout the screenplay by Mr. Hanks and Nia Vardalos (of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) elicit mild chuckles.
Although both characters face crises, neither could
be described as the clichéd midlife turbulence of getting in your last
licks of fun before the crunch of late middle age. When the stars
finally, inevitably connect in a mashing kiss, there is little visible
chemistry, although Mr. Hanks acts more excitedly goofy than Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
As the story begins, his title character, a divorced
former Navy cook and now a manically gung-ho worker for an evil
supermarket chain called U-Mart, expects to be named employee of the
month. But when summoned by his team of bosses, he is brusquely informed
that his U-Mart days are over because he lacks a college degree. He
suddenly finds himself on the street with a huge mortgage to pay.
Larry’s stubborn naïveté is creepily reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s.
Ms. Roberts’s character, Mercedes Tainot (a
belabored joke has her explain more than once that her name is not
pronounced tie-knot), is a bitter, unhappily married teacher at the
community college where Larry enrolls. He takes her course, Speech 217:
The Art of Informal Remarks, which gives Mr. Hanks the opportunity late
in the movie to put on his avuncular hat and quote the wise words of
George Bernard Shaw.
As an extracurricular relationship develops between
the teacher and her superannuated student, the scowl worn by Ms. Roberts
for the first third of the movie softens into the same radiant smile
that won millions of hearts in “Pretty Woman” all those years ago. Sad to say, it is beginning to look a little forced.
Mercedes’s breakthrough into the light happens while
cruising on the back of Larry’s motor scooter when she spots her
monstrous husband, Dean (Bryan Cranston), being arrested for drunken
driving. It occurs just after her acrimonious breakup with Dean, a
pornography-addicted deadbeat who calls himself a blogger. The last
straw is his furious denunciation of Mercedes for being flat-chested.
His taste in Internet erotica, which runs to partially clothed
giant-breasted models, is a sign of the fatal timidity of a film in
which any indication of nudity would be a no-no.
Another sign is the film’s rapid loss of interest in
a pertinent subject: the devastating impact of the unemployment crisis
on the middle class. After addressing the excruciating financial
particulars of Larry’s situation, the movie concentrates on his college
education. While a student, he conveniently lands a new job as a cook in
a coffee shop, his specialty being French toast, the subject of one of
his two-minute lectures in Mercedes’s class.
Having barely paid lip service to today’s hard
economic realities, the movie — whose opening scenes suggest Frank
Capra- or Preston Sturges-lite — abandons any pretense of relevance and
gets to the cutesy stuff. Mercedes’s class is peopled with an adorable
cross-section of students you might encounter in a ’70s sitcom.
Larry also takes an economics course whose grandiose
professor, Dr. Matsutani (George Takei) is an amusing caricature of the
teacher as a preening martinet with oratorical pretensions. Befriended
by Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a free-spirited classmate with whom he
exchanges text messages during lectures, Larry is invited to join her
Rest assured, these are no Hells Angels but a pack
of friendly young people who scoot around visiting yard sales. A
particularly annoying subplot involves the jealousy of Talia’s politely
possessive boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama).
The reliable if slowly fading charms of its stars lend “Larry Crowne”
a gloss of likability. But by the time it ends, we have long ago left
Earth to settle on Planet Schmaltz with a syrupy pile of French toast.
“Larry Crowne” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has brief strong language and sexual content.