As an actor, Tom Hanks has often been compared with Jimmy Stewart. As a director, he seems to take his cues from frequent Stewart collaborator, Frank Capra. Larry Crowne, Hanks’ second effort behind the camera, makes It’s a Wonderful Life look like Enter the Void. It’s a cute movie that never meant to hurt no one, and that’s the best thing I can say about it. Spending time with Larry Crowne, both the film and the title character, is like spending time with an elderly relative who is intent on spinning yarns that are only mildly amusing and intermittently funny: not exactly a horrible way to pass 99 minutes, but still a bit of a chore. Such is the likability of Hanks and the adorable naiveté of his and Nia Vardalos’ script that I practically feel evil for not falling head over heels in love with the super-sweet, Norman Rockwell-esque universe depicted here. In fact, even if you are evil – kitten-stomping, baby-eating, Kardashian-abiding evil – you’d still probably feel a bit guilty for not enjoying it all that much. The film is perfectly pleasant, and all the characters seem like really nice human beings, but ultimately I found myself humouring it rather than it humouring me.
The film begins with former Navy-lifer and recent divorcee Larry Crowne (Hanks) loving life as a valued employee at the U-Mart superstore. Well, he thinks he’s valued, until they fire him for not having a college education (times are tough, and they have to cull their staff from the bottom up). After taking the advice of his wacky neighbours Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), Larry decides to head back to school, enrolling in community college to study Public Speaking, Economics and … Fitting In (awww). He ditches his SUV for a scooter, and is invited to join the local scooter-gang by his effervescent classmate Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), because this is a world where there are such things as scooter gangs and gorgeous 25-year-old women who latch onto 50-something guys they meet in parking lots. Larry’s public speaking teacher, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), is unimpressed by his friendship with the young lady. But frankly, she’s just annoyed that her career is going nowhere, her students don’t care about her classes and that her blogger husband (Bryan Cranston) spends his day looking up erotica from the 1980s. Perhaps the puppy-dog charm of a mature-aged student will pull her out of her doldrums?
The similarities between Larry Crowne and the television show Community should be apparent. The differences, however, are equally obvious. Although both take place in a community college and feature classrooms of lovable misfits, Community is bold, experimental, and blisteringly funny. Larry Crowne is none of those things. It does feel like a TV show though, so feel free to add a third tick to the comparison tally. Larry Crowne is just a bit lame; it coasts on the charm of its stars in lieu of plot, jokes, emotion and narrative thrust. The laughs are few and far between, often courtesy of George Takei as economics professor Dr. Matsutani. I’ve been waiting years for Hanks to return to the world of comedy, particularly following his overlong stay in the interminable realm of Dan Brown adaptations. Larry Crowne proves he’s still a charming comic lead, but that’s just not enough to excuse everything else the film is lacking.
Larry Crowne arrives in cinemas July 21, 2011.