Larry (Tom Hanks) is a jovial worker at big box store U-Mart. He’s clearly dedicated and hard-working, having won employee of the month several times. However, despite his solid record at U-Mart and 20 years in the Navy, the company decides it has to let Larry go because he can’t move up the corporate ladder. His résumé, showing a man of work ethic and dependability though it does, does not include any time in college, a must to become a U-Mart executive, his firers inform him. So suddenly there’s Larry, a man who, like Hanks, is probably in his 50s, unemployed and unable to find work.
On the advice of his neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer), a man who makes his living running a permanent garage sale in front of his house, Larry decides to check out the local community college. There, the dean (Holmes Osborne), a fellow former military man, advises him to take a writing class, a business class and the public speaking class. These will put him on the road to knowledge and a better career, the dean says.
Larry arrives for his first day of school on a scooter (which he bought for its less than $5 fill-up to replace his $70+ per fill-up SUV) and instantly makes a new friend in Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who, along with her boyfriend Dell (Wilmer Valderrama), is in a “scooter gang” that hangs out and rides around together. Talia is also in his economics class. Even though that is taught by the imposing Dr. Matsutani (a delightful George Takei), Larry takes to it quickly. And even though it’s outside his comfort zone, speech class also turns out to be a favorite for Larry. In fact, it’s his presence on the first day (bringing the class number up to the required minimum of 10) that keeps the professor, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), from canceling it.
And Mercedes was hoping to cancel this early-morning speech class. A teacher of unpopular subjects, she is also the wife of a loaf-y husband (Bryan Cranston) who has written a few books but now spends his days posting on blogs and looking at porn. She relies on bitterness, sarcasm and drinking to get her through the day but is slowly taken in by the genuine interest in learning from Larry.
And, because this is that kind of movie, there is also some chemistry from these two older adults in a college full of mostly kids.
The romance is one of the weakest parts of this story. Not that Roberts and Hanks couldn’t have chemistry — they kind of do as the movie wears on. But the story is not really about that until it is and then their relationship feels shoehorned in. It’s as though the guy-on-the-journey story was deemed not enough to hold the movie so other things had to be added.
And that’s really how all of Larry Crowne feels. This movie has good parts. Larry is a solid character, a man who basically made good life choices but now finds himself at odds with the modern, post-Great Recession economy. We don’t see characters like this often and there’s something nice about how the movie shows him dealing with his change in circumstance and starting over. And, by itself, the Mercedes character is also interesting. She’s a woman who has been disappointed — by life, by her husband and probably by herself. She needs her work to have meaning and isn’t sure it does. Viewed as Larry’s struggle to find a place in a changed world and Mercedes’ struggle to find purpose and happiness in her own life, their stories kind of work and even kind of make nice parallels to each other until the romance is inartfully stuffed in.
The movie has some nice, if a bit whimsical, supporting characters as well. Talia and Dell are nice young-people counterpoints to Larry. They bring him out of himself, but also we get to see their youthful decisions through his experienced eyes. The movie has nice moments about friendship and meeting new people and forming new bonds. But they are just moments — no themes or even overall moods really gel. You can see how the movie could have become more situation comedy, sort of like Community but without that TV show’s meta quirkiness. Or how it could have become more a dramady that focused on class and economic issues. Larry Crowne seems to split the difference, giving us unformed and not completely successful bits of both. There’s a frayed feeling to the movie — plotlines that seem significant, like the dean who seems to be pushing students at Mercedes’ class or Larry’s divorce, never go anywhere.
I tend to wonder how much of this is due to Nia Vardalos, who co-wrote the project with Hanks. Her My Big Fat Greek Wedding was perfectly constructed. She was able to hit tone, comedy and characters just right. But subsequent movies, like 2009’s I Hate Valentine’s Day, have felt shaky. The story and characters in Larry Crowne go in so many different directions that no one plot feels fully developed. In the end it just comes down to how much time we are willing to spend with the characters. It’s their general likability helps the movie rise above its mediocrity and become a mostly watchable affair. C+
Rated PG-13 for brief story language and some sexual content. Directed by Tom Hanks and written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos, Larry Crowne is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures.