This must begin with a shameful confession, which is that the trailer for “Larry Crowne” made me want to punch Julia Roberts in the face. Look, I know it’s terrible. I barely even know how to punch a person, let alone a balloon animal like the one Roberts appears to be in “Larry Crowne.” But if Tom Hanks movies have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes there is the matter of the right thing to do.
“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, it is Hanks who plays the character named Larry Crowne. Roberts plays the character named Mercedes (or “Mercy”) Tainot, and I’m glad I didn’t know that when I saw the trailer.
Larry, a peppy box-store middle manager, loses his job. It’s 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? Disliking her life still is not something she can play convincingly.
There is a Mr. Tainot: useless, combative, and soon to be gotten rid of. He takes the form of 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 clobbering material seems only to punish them for it. This is comedy so broad it expands like a cloud of gas in all directions simultaneously, dissipating right before our eyes.
Well, 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 smiling and moony, he’s genuinely gallant, and the ticket-buyer’s heart is sufficiently warmed. But there sure is a lot of junky clutter around that charming bullseye. As severely ingratiating as the “Larry Crowne” trailer is, the film itself is worse.
All lousy movies remind us of the brevity and inescapable wastefulness of life. This one rubs it in. This one is so benign it’s malignant.
“I’m sorry that he has to see that,” a friend said, gravely, when informed of my obligation to witness the Hanks ’n’ Roberts happening. Her tone implied that resigned yet protective feeling we have for children when they’re no longer protectable from the evils of the world. As if just setting eyes on this thing could shatter one’s innocence.
If only. It puts me in mind of Alfred Hitchcock, turning our beloved Jimmy Stewart into a stalker creep and killing off Kim Novak in the lurid melodrama of “Vertigo.” That could be an instructive paradigm for “Larry Crowne,” given the latter’s natural talent for clammy desperation. But to embrace the Hitchcock view of movie-star mania as a weirdly elaborate function of impotence and necrophilia? Alas, Hanks wouldn’t do that to himself on purpose, no matter how deadening his (and Vardalos’) writing inadvertently is.
As for Roberts, well, if I can’t do any punching, I cry Mercy.