You may have heard of a film called Sullivan’s Travels, and if you’ve heard of it, you may know the gist: Popular but unfulfilled director Sullivan is tired of making commercially successful but emotionally and intellectually vapid films. He decides that his next film (named O Brother, Where Art Thou?) will be a socially conscious depiction of the lower classes.
Through a series of comic mix-ups, he gets tossed in prison. One night a cartoon is screened for the inmates and Sullivan has an epiphany: The best way he can help the downtrodden is not by making high drama, but low-brow crowd-pleasers.
Larry Crowne is the kind of movie Sullivan would make if he were alive today. It’s full of plot-holes, cheap laughs, lazy pop-culture references, and utterly devoid of conflict. But for the women-age-45-and-up demographic wanting to see a cute romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts (have they ever been paired together? I can’t recall), this should suffice.
Tom Hanks, who wrote, directed, and produced it, plays Crowne, a middle-aged supermarket drone/former Naval cook who loses his beloved job because he never went to college. Low on cash but doggone tenacious, he enrolls in community college, taking a speech class taught by the jaded Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts, who’s getting more attractive with age) and an Econ 101 class taught by the zany Dr. Matsutani (George Takei).
He also meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a trendy but sweet student who takes it upon herself to trenderize Crowne (updating his wardrobe, Feng Shuizing his home, enlisting him in a benign scooter gang, the usual) and takes up a job as fry cook for his buddy Frank (Ian Gomez). As expected, he begins to fall for Tainot, whose marriage to wannabe blogger and porn junkie Dean (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) is, coincidentally, crumbling.
The lack of twists, turns, and surprises probably works in the film’s favor. Contrived situations and lame misunderstandings would have made the film grating instead of merely unambitious. The only thing that really stands between Crowne and Tainot is her marriage, but that complication resolves itself.
Hanks, naturally, is the likeable everyman you would expect in a movie like this, and the supporting cast (which also includes Cedric the Entertainer as Crowne’s whacky neighbor whose wardrobe is taken from the cast of Gilligan’s Island) occasionally slips above the material, but Roberts is a standout. She isn’t given much to work with, but, aside from her looks (which are getting better with age), her acerbic playfulness is so charming I hope it pops up again in a better-written movie.
Takei provides the most laughs with the same 1940s-Japanman character he’s been playing his entire career—and econ students will enjoy the fact that his class has absolutely nothing to do with economics (there was at least one big laugh when he says, “We cannot make assumptions”). Need I even mention the multiple references to Twitter and Facebook, among others, that already seem dated?
Again, it’s a crowd pleaser, and the rest of the audience ate it up. If you’re in the mood to see Hanks and Roberts pitch some woo to each other, you may as well catch it, I doubt it’ll be around for a long time.