by Hugh Fisher
Say we’re barely into July and you’re already sick of sequels. What if you crave something more substantial than alien planets, giant robots and explosions?
Meet “Larry Crowne,” a film that’s tough to place into a genre. “Romantic comedy” fits the bill, but even better to describe it as a mature coming-of-age drama.
It won’t be everyone’s favorite, but it’s easily the most original and unassuming movie I’ve seen so far this summer.
Tom Hanks stars, and returns to the director’s chair for the first time in more than a decade, in a story of two people finding love and renewed purpose in a tough corner of America.
At the beginning, Larry Crowne (Hanks) seems like a middle-class Everyman. He works at U-Mart, a trendy big-box store. He’s been employee of the month more times than his co-workers can remember. He knows his products backward and forward.
But Crowne never went to college, so the higher-ups not only fire him but make it seem like they’re doing him a favor. Meanwhile, Crowne owes more on his mortgage than his home is worth and can’t find a job to save his life.
So Crowne trades his flat-screen TV for a fuel-efficient motor scooter and enrolls in a community college where the professors are as overworked and unfulfilled as their students.
One such teacher is Mercy Tainot (Julia Roberts). She really wants to be teaching Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw and making a difference in people’s lives. Instead, she’s stuck teaching “Informal Remarks,” an early-morning fluff course for wannabe Toastmasters.
Crowne ends up there, with a mixed bag of teens and twenty-somethings.
As the weeks go by, he gets style tips from the lovely young Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and finds a new part-time job with new challenges. On the other side of town, Tainot pays the bills while her novelist husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) spends more time surfing porn and blogging than actually writing.
It takes a while for accidental attraction to spark between Crowne and Mrs. Tainot.
When it does, it’s handled pretty well. This movie, at least, foregoes obvious jokes in favor of subtle, witty dialogue. Hanks and Roberts are among the best and most recognizable faces in Hollywood and they do good work here, just expect to see very different characters from the ones they’re best known for.
Roberts’ Mercy Tainot is far from the unsinkable women of her biggest blockbusters. She’s a tired, underappreciated intellectual who’s never going to be as well-known as her immature husband, but still struggles to make a difference.
That said, her transformation into Larry’s smiling love interest is rushed, needing more exploration than the movie takes time to show.
The bouncy, almost manic, Crowne of the film’s opening scenes might remind you of Hanks’ earlier comedy days, but he transitions quickly into a man who’s quite understandably out of sorts when forced to change almost everything about his life.
George “Mr. Sulu” Takei plays Dr. Matsutani, who occupies the other end of the teaching spectrum from Mrs. Tainot. Rob Riggle, of “The Daily Show” fame, has a smaller role as one of Crowne’s former U-Mart colleagues turned middle management. Cedric the Entertainer is both funny and soulful as Lamar, Crowne’s next-door neighbor.
“Larry Crowne” is a fun ride, like the scooter that figures prominently in its advertising. You can’t take it too seriously, or it won’t be fun.
This movie won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and it certainly won’t make every long-time Hanks or Roberts fan happy, but a movie about ordinary people finding ordinary love is refreshingly extraordinary this season.
Grade: 4/4 stars