Director: Tom Hanks Screenwriter: Tom Hanks, Nia Vardalos Cast: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wilmer Valderrama, Pam Grier Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 99 min. MPAA: PG-13

Tom Hanks is such a likable guy that something as sappy and sweet as Larry Crowne is sure to cause a cavity. But unlike his stronger fables of Forrest Gump and The Terminal, this Hanks-directed affair seems strangely light. Perhaps I just can’t buy him so easily as the everyman at this stage in his life. It’s this distance with his charm that makes him hard to buy and forces a lot of comedy that doesn’t suit him well.

Hanks plays Larry, a former Navy cook that has spent his life being passionate about retail if you can believe it. He may be one of the most enthusiastic and hard-working retail employees that he’d have to exist in such a fantasy story as this comedy. Even more of a fantasy is that a big-box store struggling through a tough economy would let Larry go because he doesn’t have a college education. That sounds like such a lame excuse to let him go but Larry takes it in stride. After all, he’s Tom Hanks and a personality such as his could get him anywhere.

He attends college and quickly draws the attention of the shrill speech teacher Mercy (Julia Roberts). She hates her job to an absurd degree, despising Larry for being the one student required to make her 8 AM class not worthy of being canceled. Her husband (Bryan Cranston) is also a jerk, spending his days at home writing when he’s really just spamming comments and looking at porn. She needs a thick dose of that Larry Crowne charm to turn her life around and make teaching seem much more fun. And, of course, find a new romance along the way.

It’s not that Tom Hanks isn’t fun to follow but he seems so indestructible in the face of unemployment that there’s not much tension or interesting developments here. Larry takes a course in economics that requires extensive readings from a demanding teacher (George Takei) but he aces it with flying colors because he’s a smart guy. He needs money and takes a job as a chef at a restaurant, another simple job that he eases into with a wealth of experience cooking. His schedule is tight but he’ll just study in between breaks. And, still, he finds time for love and forming bonds with the younger students. What a carefree world this is!

I really wish I could be there for this film where Tom Hanks works up the courage to deliver a fantastic speech in class, make it as a chef, earn that degree, ride mopeds with the younger folk, and win the heart of Julia Roberts in under two hours. But he’s simply a big fish in a bowl far too small to give him something to do. It’s astonishing to see Hanks take the direction of his own film and portray a character so simple and safe. It comes off more as a role built more to accommodate Tom Hanks than truly use him in a story where he can push his personality rather than just flex and blush at his greatness.

I also think it’s a waste of Julia Roberts who pull off that shrill woman so perfectly she seems to almost sleepwalking through a role that she could perform between films. But because it’s nearly impossible to hate Hanks, she has to turn up the scowling and bitterness to comically exaggerated levels that don’t exactly meld well with the rest of the story. Much like Hanks, she seems to be punching the card.

Larry Crowne is too passive of a film to be anything more than that one film where Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts hooked up as student and teacher. It’s a harmless farce that goes about its story of generational divide and second chances with gentility and smiles. But such light entertainment doesn’t give much to remember, doomed to evaporate in the memory among the lesser films of Hanks and Roberts.

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