(by Dustin Putman
Sometimes pleasant is enough. In a summer movie season overloaded with special effects-laden tentpoles and raunchy R-rated comedies, "Larry Crowne" is like a comfy, reliable blanket. Fifteen years after making his feature directorial debut with 1996's "That Thing You Do!," Tom Hanks has returned as writer and director with an unpretentious, sweet-hearted slice-of-life. Focused on character rather than plot, the film, co-written by Nia Vardalos (2004's "Connie and Carla"), moves at its own endearing, laid-back pace, unsuspectingly laying the groundwork for more than at first meets the eye. The comedy is not of the gut-busting variety, but worth a fair share of smiles and chuckles. The drama avoids contrived crises and manipulative tragedy, entering the equation only when the lives of its protagonists call for it. Perhaps "Larry Crowne" works so well because it doesn't take many chances, and, thus, takes few wrong steps. Still, there's something awfully nice about seeing two A-list movie stars at the top of their games in a film that is simply thoughtful and well-written without feeling the need to shoot for the moon. Article continues below
When Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) abruptly loses his job after a downsizing at U-Mart—he is told that without a college degree there is no possible room for him to advance further—he is faced with the prospect of having to start over in his fifties. Divorced and maybe a little lonely, the amiable, easy-going Larry trades in his gas-guzzling truck for a motor scooter and enrolls at East Valley Community College. Befriended by a gang of fellow scooter riders led by economics classmate Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), he finds a place for himself while voraciously digging into his school work. Professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) is at a crossroads herself, growing increasingly fed up with her unemployed, porn-addicted husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) and beginning to doubt if she's making any impact in the lives of her students as attendance plummets with each passing semester. Her speech class, entitled "The Art of Informal Remarks," is on the verge of being cancelled—there has to be at least ten students to make it financially worthwhile—until Larry shows up at the last minute. Initially he's just another of her students, but without any preconceived expectations the two of them hit it off after Larry gives her a helping hand in a moment of need. The rules of conduct between teacher and student dictate that they can't really go any further in their relationship, but it's a temporary road block for two people who are unable to deny the connection they seemingly share.
"Larry Crowne" takes a few minutes to find its footing, the film akin to a middle-aged person out of touch with what's considered hip or cool. Small touches of attempted humor are cornball—e.g., Larry points to a crown on his coffee cup when someone utters his last name; getting on a scooter for the first time, he accidentally runs into a yard sale table and knocks it over—but then it soon settles into a more pleasing, less forced groove. If the picture is still a tad old-fashioned, chalk it up to the emulation of Larry himself, a guy whose house is cluttered and whose fashion sense is nil until Talia breezes into his life and loosens him up. Their friendship is just that—purely platonic—and Tom Hanks (2009's "Angels & Demons") and captivating relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw are wonderful together as they latch onto one another. Also authentic is the depiction of the community college milieu, the atmosphere of the campus, the classrooms, the cramped administrative offices, and the differing teaching styles of, for example, the loosy-goosy Mercedes and forthright, lecture-heavy economics professor Dr. Matsutani (a winning George Takei).
Tom Hanks shares a great deal of chemistry, too, with Julia Roberts (2010's "Eat Pray Love"), at once vibrant, harried and vulnerable as Mercedes "Mercy" Tainot. Free from the reigns of having to carry the movie by herself, Roberts has the natural presence of a star but the ability to effortlessly slide into relatable, down-to-earth roles that place her at one with the audience. Roberts is funny even in the way she defeatedly writes on the chalkboard on the first day of class, but behind that is a layer of poignancy that speaks loudly to who she is and what she's going through. With a deadbeat husband whom she's beginning to wonder how she could ever have married, Mercy is in need of a ray of hope, and she gets that by recognizing the innate goodness within Larry. This, at last, is the kind of guy she should have been with all along. The romance between Larry and Mercy is as unforced and natural as the movie itself. When she suggests it was a mistake that they kissed the night before—she was emotionally in a bad place at the time, and had too much to drink—and asks that he keep it to himself, it isn't blown out of proportion or made into an excuse for a blow-up and huge conflict. Quite the contrary, Larry's immediate understanding of the situation only forces her to reevaluate and reconsider him once more.
There isn't a doubt where "Larry Crowne" is headed, but the way it gets there is kind of lovely in its simplicity. Larry eventually will graduate from his classes and move on to others. With time, he'll figure out what he wants to do in the long term, and until then at least he's making some money as a diner cook (his past culinary experience comes in handy here). His choice to move out of his house, meanwhile, is the final step that he must take to bid farewell to his former married life and welcome in what comes next. An excellent supporting cast, including Cedric the Entertainer (2008's "Cadillac Records") and Taraji P. Henson (2010's "The Karate Kid") as Larry's neighbors Lamar and B'Ella, Wilmer Valderrama (2006's "Unaccompanied Minors") as Talia's boyfriend Dell, and Pam Grier (2010's "Just Wright") as Mercy's friend and fellow teacher Frances, make lasting imprints with small roles. They're all people the viewer wouldn't mind getting to know in real life. "Larry Crowne" isn't a breakthrough in innovation, but it's also not stringently stuck in formula, either. Ringing true fairly consistently and lingering afterwards even in its lightness, the film doesn't have to try to please. It just does.