In Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks plays a man whose life could not be more ordinary — and yet, in many ways, he is an extraordinary representation of a plight millions of Americans are facing. At the start of the film, Larry (played by Tom Hanks, who also directed and co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos) happily works at U-Mart, a Walmart-type superstore where he keeps the shelves stocked, collects shopping carts from the parking lot and derives pleasure from his job. He is middle class and middle aged; he owns his house and drives an SUV. He is divorced but happy, with friends and ties to the community. And then one day, in a matter of minutes, his world falls apart: The company is downsizing, and his bosses, using a loophole rule that prevents Larry’s promotion because he lacks a college degree, decide that their repeat Employee of the Month has to go.
Larry, who served 20 years in the Navy instead of going to school, is devastated — his sense of security suddenly uprooted, his future bleak. He proactively seeks a job, but there are few choices for an undereducated fortysomething whose primary work experience could be matched by many teenagers who are a lot cheaper to hire. So Larry does the only thing he can think of: He enrolls in a community college to get a degree. Among his classes is Speech 217 — The Art of Informal Remarks, which has the bare minimum of students (10) and is taught by the borderline-alcoholic, unhappily married Mercedes (Julia Roberts), who has lost her passion for her profession.
Not much happens in Larry Crowne that isn’t predictable after the first 10 minutes: As a director, Hanks is more interested in burrowing deeply into his characters’ lives than he is in doling out plot twists and curve balls. A lot of people in the film will remind you of people you know, such as Larry’s neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson), who constantly have yard sales, or one of Larry’s fellow students (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who wrestles with the temptation to quit school and starting a business. There’s some overly cute nonsense regarding Larry’s decision to trade in his SUV for a scooter, and the two scenes in which Larry tries to convince a bank officer to refinance his house will ring painfully true to many viewers.
The real reason to watch this modestly charming, featherweight bauble is the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts, beloved superstars who make a beautiful pair. Larry Crowne is only their second movie together (after Charlie Wilson’s War), but Hanks’ noble everyman is an inspired match for Roberts, who plays her character’s bitter disappointment with a believable acidity. She’s a woman who has lost faith in the world, and although Larry reinvents his life out of necessity, her transformation comes from a deeper place. Roberts takes what could have been a token romantic-interest role and gives it sparks and edge: She’s fantastic. Larry Crowne gains points for its uncanny timeliness, but Hanks and Roberts transcend the story’s topicality and become real people who must learn to climb onto a different horse when their old one gives out. The film seems simple and facile at a glance, but these characters and their dilemmas stay with you. These days, any of us could suddenly be Larry Crowne.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw,Wilmer Valderrama, Pam Grier.
Director: Tom Hanks.
Screenwriters: Tom Hanks, Nia Vardalos.
Producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 99 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.