This must begin with a shameful confession: 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 it’s important to do what’s right.

Larry Crowne is a Julia Roberts movie—just look at her on the back of that scooter, pouting away under her cute little helmet!%uFFFD%uFFFD—but more than that, it is a Tom Hanks movie. He’s the one driving the scooter, plus the film’s director and co-writer (the latter with My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos). Hanks plays the titular character, while Roberts assumes the role of Mercedes (or “Mercy”) Tainot. (I’m glad I didn’t know her name when I saw the trailer.)
Larry, a peppy big-box store middle manager, loses his job because he didn’t go to college. So he goes to college. His first class—one in public speaking—is what puts him at Roberts’ Mercy. In one of many limp gestures of phony chivalry, the movie pretends that she’s a Shakespearean 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 is not something she can play convincingly.

Then there’s Mr. Tainot—useless, combative and soon to be discarded—appearing in the form of Bryan Cranston, here apparently doing penance for having dared to transcend sitcom shtick in Breaking Bad. And so it goes for Larry Crowne’s small battalion of secondary caricatures. We’d like to imagine Hanks as a generous director, but his way of slathering everyone with benevolence seems borderline 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 is 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 to punish them for it. This is comedy so broad it dissipates 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 giddy; he’s circumspect; the audience is warmed. But there’s a lot of junky clutter around that charming bullseye. As severely ingratiating as the Larry Crowne trailer is, the film is worse.

And if I can’t do any punching, I cry Mercy.

Directed by
Tom Hanks
With Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wilmer Valderrama, Cedric the Entertainer and George Takei
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
99 min.