For a movie called Larry Crowne, it sure is tough to get a solid read on the character of Larry Crowne. Directed, co-written by and starring Tom Hanks in that title role, the film seems to want to be some kind of post-recession pick-me-up, an “It Gets Better” video for the struggling, aging-out American middle class. With its eager-to-please congeniality, it almost works, but with a pacing that is at once comfortably assured and frustratingly slack, like holding exactly to the speed limit on a stretch of open road, Larry Crowne never quite comes to life.
As the film opens, Larry seems content with his lot in life — at least, in the few short moments he is on-screen before being abruptly fired, for lack of a college education, from his job at U-Mart, a big-box store chain with the sneakily obtuse corporate culture of Wal-Mart and the red-shirt/khaki-pants dress code of Target.
This starts Larry off on a process of personal reinvention that finds him enrolling in community college as a way to better arm himself for the next job, becoming a motor-scooter enthusiast and almost inadvertently wooing his age-appropriate teacher (Julia Roberts).
There isn't much in the way of fresh-wound wallowing: Larry quickly and simply gets to the business of starting over. Any dissatisfactions Larry may have before embarking on this new chapter in his life are glossed over quickly, with just a mention of having been passed by for a promotion and a relatively recent rough divorce (his ex-wife never even gets a name). The film is so intent on remaining upbeat, seeing the positive, that it more or less forgets to acknowledge the negative.
A film about a late-middle-aged man forced to start fresh presumably would get some mileage from a stuck-in-his-ways reluctance to try new things, but Larry is immediately open and receptive to change, adapting quickly to exchanging texts with younger students, adopting a snazzy new wardrobe and even starting to wear a wallet chain. There is never a strong enough sense of what was missing from Larry's previous life — what he is changing from, or any dashed dreams or paths not taken — to really appreciate who he is changing into.
Despite opening with a fast-paced montage of Larry at work set to ELO's bouncy “Hold on Tight” (and ending with ELO's “Calling America”), tonally Larry Crowne is more of a midtempo groover in line with the three Tom Petty songs it prominently features, including a scooter-riding sequence set to “Runnin' Down a Dream.” Purposefully or not, the film takes on the character of those songs and their titles — unassuming and craftsmanlike with a vague, if vaguely unconvincing, undercurrent of optimism.
Roberts, who seems to have settled permanently into her recent screen persona of always being slightly pissed off, plays a character with more obvious things to be upset about as a community college English teacher. As her husband, a struggling sci-fi writer who mistakes blog-reading and comment-leaving for actually being productive, Bryan Cranston provides a needed jolt of energy. The scene that finds them both just soused enough to really let each other have it on the drive home from dinner has a sense of friction and spark that is missing from the rest of the movie.
Larry Crowne seems to be in some sense about getting rid of your shit, dropping the baggage, be it physical or spiritual, that bogs each of us down — a theme made literal with both Larry and Roberts' Mrs. Tainot signaling forward movement by putting some stuff out front on the lawn.
In trying to make Larry Crowne into a free-floating everyman, Hanks turns Larry Crowne into something disconcertingly untethered, generalizing contemporary issues of downsizing and foreclosure and worries about gas mileage and accepting The New into something so blithely nondescript as to carry no real weight.
If Hanks is even aware that Larry's wallet chain is less a symbol of hip rebirth than the signal of a geezer hopelessly chasing youth, as a filmmaker he doesn't have the teeth to reveal it.
LARRY CROWNE | Directed by TOM HANKS | Written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos | Starring Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston | Universal | Citywide