Do you like movies with coherent plots, jokes that you can’t stop laughing about, and moments that touch you so deeply you think about them for weeks? Then avoid Larry Crowne, which instead boasts a weakly constructed story, complicated and confusing humor, and a half-hearted romance that comes off more creepy than endearing.
Ex-Navy line cook Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) loses his long-term job at the big box store U-Mart for some very conveniently made-up reasons. After floundering for a bit, and behind on his mortgage, at the urging of a neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) he decides to go back to school. While there he makes some friends, including a manic pixie dream girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who comes into his life and shakes things up, giving him a new wardrobe and rearranging his life despite his protestations. One of his exhausted teachers (Julia Roberts) is going through a rough time in her marriage, and since I’m sure you’ve all seen the billboards and posters advertising this movie, I can tell you that something begins to happen between Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks. Surprising, I know.
Does this sound like a dream you once had, or maybe a pointlessly boring story a co-worker told you? The problems with Larry Crowne are so intrinsically pervasive that to discuss it is kind of like trying to explain what colors are to a blind person. It just can’t be done. It’s shocking just how much nothingness happens in Larry Crowne. One major problem is that there are too many characters, not enough plot to go around. Larry's classmates and really everyone he interacts with, are meant to cover the gamut of stereotypes; we know so little about any one character that we barely have time to decide whether we like them or dislike them before we’re whipped away to consider some other shiny bauble of pointlessness. There’s a group of students who sort of adopt Crowne into their clan, and they ride scooters around, looking for cool places to eat and fun thrift stores. No joke, they initiate him into their crowd by snapping and asking him to snap along. Disturbingly, most of the jokes or moments played for laughs feel exactly like the sort of things that old people would think were funny. For instance, Julia Roberts makes herself a margarita after work and drinks it so quickly that she gets a brain freeze. Unfortunately, nothing much funnier than that happens in the film.
At an hour and a half, the film feels simultaneously twice as long and also as if a great deal was cut out of it. We never see enough interaction between Crowne and the Roberts character to understand what could be drawing them together; instead they seem to heavily sigh their way to each other’s side. Hanks is a parody of a human, all bubbly enthusiasm and desire to better himself, but to what end? We aren’t ever privy to his goals or ambitions, which makes it hard to root for him. Roberts is trapped in a loveless marriage, but you don’t like her any better than her boring husband (charmingly played by Bryan Cranston), and the film never lets us know a single thing about her other than she is tired of teaching. When they get together, you know the bare minimum about either of them, and it seems to be more a product of inevitability rather than a true conclusion of two people falling in love.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that it is an out-and-out vanity project for Tom Hanks. Written along with Nia Vardalos (who gave us the lovely My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and directed by Hanks as well, Larry Crowne seems to exist because Tom Hanks wanted to write and direct. As such, it feels almost mean-spirited to try and pinpoint the exact failings of the film. Hanks and Roberts are capable and endearing actors, as evidenced by their decades of work and the fact that they are pretty universally recognized as some of the biggest stars in the world. It isn’t exactly their acting that makes Larry Crowne unwatchable, it’s kind of a perfect storm of problems -- from the script to the plot, which lacks clarity, flow and any kind of actual resolve, to the lackluster characters and manufactured situations in which they find themselves. For a movie with such fantastic potential, the overwhelming feeling in the end hovers between wondering what sins you committed in your life that you were forced to sit through this one, and a big fat “So what?”