This must begin with a shameful confession, which is that the trailer for Larry Crowne made me want to see some horrible fate befall Julia Roberts. Look, I know it’s terrible. I barely even know how to hurt another person, let alone a balloon animal like the one Roberts plays in Larry Crowne. But if movies starring Tom Hanks have taught me anything, they have taught me that it’s important to do the right thing.
Larry Crowne is a Julia Roberts movie—just look at her on the back of that scooter, pouting away under her cute little helmet. But more than that, it is a Tom Hanks movie. He’s the one driving the scooter. He’s the director, too, and a co-writer with My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos. Also, Hanks plays the character named Larry Crowne. Roberts’ character is named Mercedes Tainot (also, “Mercy”), which I’m glad I didn’t know when I saw the trailer.
Larry, a peppy box-store middle manager, loses his job because he didn’t go to college. So he goes to college. His first class, in public speaking, puts him at Roberts’ Mercy. In one of many limp gestures of phony chivalry, the movie pretends she’s a Shakespeare scholar. And for reasons only of plot propulsion, she’s supposed to be a jaded crank. She mugs her dissatisfaction into an edgeless pulp. Maybe I’m just mad because I want my Julia Roberts to be smiling and moony. I mean, that’s her thing, right? It was a mistake to think that Roberts could play a curmudgeon.
The character of her useless and combative husband is inhabited by Bryan Cranston, here apparently doing penance for having dared to transcend sitcom shtick in “Breaking Bad.” But so it goes for Larry Crowne’s small battalion of secondary caricatures. We like to imagine Hanks as a generous director, but his way of slathering everyone with benevolence seems almost bullying. As Larry’s next door neighbor, Cedric the Entertainer does not entertain. As his economics professor, George Takei nearly squanders his cheeky viral-video-fueled career renaissance. As a flirty fellow student who fixes up Larry’s house and wardrobe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw beams so brightly that I had to look away for her dignity’s sake. As her nonthreateningly threatening boyfriend, Wilmer Valderrama gets gradually emasculated. The other kids in class with Larry have good comedic instincts, like Hanks did when he was their age, but this material seems to punish them for it. This is comedy so broad it dissipates right before your eyes.
And what about the romance? What about the trusty tag-team sweetheartism of Hanks and Roberts together? For a moment, yes, they have it—she’s giddy, he’s circumspect, audience hearts are warmed. But there’s a lot of clutter around that charming bullseye. A whole movie’s worth. As maddeningly ingratiating as the trailer for Larry Crowne, the film itself is worse.
Fine, no hitting. I cry Mercy.