"You're never too old to learn." We hear these words during "Larry Crowne" when Larry (Tom Hanks) decides to go back to college in his mid-50s. It helps when a movie spells it right out for you, doesn't it?
The hand-holding introduction to the hero's plight plays like a professor who hands out a syllabus and proceeds to read it aloud: Average guy Larry (Hanks) is busy enjoying another day in retail on the way to retirement when his superiors tell him he's lost his job because of his lack of higher education. Great opportunities reside in such a premise, but unfortunately "Larry Crowne" is trying to appeal to general audiences while being hip — always a dangerous combination.
The movie pauses to speak slowly during common, we've-all-been-there moments such as Larry's firing — his bosses have a difficult time explaining the concept to him — only to go too fast during more complicated interactions. We learn Larry is deep in debt and has never done much with his life except work. So he heads off to the local community college, where he runs into the dean, right inside the front door, who signs him up for classes that very minute, classes that start that week, where he meets on the first day all the people who will help change his life. Good thing Larry wasn't fired during spring break!
Larry's history bespeaks a man who will find it difficult to make a new start with little resources and training, not to mention a bad haircut. But Larry's path is cleared at every turn by the godlike hand of expedient screenwriting. How are we supposed to feel empathy for a guy this lucky, or suspense for what might happen to him, when nothing but good things ever happen to him?
Larry's first class — taken on the recommendation of that nice dean guy — is taught by Julia Roberts, as a beleaguered-but-leggy public speaking instructor named Mercedes Tainot. Lucky for Larry — of course — Mrs. Tainot is having problems with Mr. Tainot (Bryan Cranston), who, we learn within the space of one scene, is lecherous, insensitive, selfish, lazy, good-for-nothing, and, to top it all off, a blogger. What did Mercedes ever see in the guy? It's hard to say. The couple has interminable fights, during which less kind (or more alert) audiences might start to wonder why the script required this marriage. Couldn't Larry meet a single Julia Roberts?
Larry also meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young, pretty and extremely outgoing girl who decides to take Larry under her wing when he shows up to school on the back of a motor scooter, which is also Talia's mode of transportation. Talia, a fashion lover, gives Larry a makeover, something like straight female eye for the weird guy. Soon Larry is sporting a new name (Lance Corona), new hair (kind of pushed forward, emo style) and new outfits from those trendy men's fashion places. He also gets inducted into Talia's scooter gang. It's all quite horrifying.
Eventually it begins to dawn on even the least awake in the theater that there's a reason Larry — dumpy, middle-aged, poor, unemployable man — attracts not one but two beautiful women, who continue to associate with him even after he starts sporting a wallet chain. That reason is Tom Hanks, who isn't just starring as Larry Crowne, but producing and directing himself as well. Clearly Hanks, who did a much more respectable job with "That Thing You Do" (1996) is trying to please too many people this time out, including, and especially, himself. That previous effort also was ingratiating, but Hanks didn't write it. Here he's co-scripting with Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Half the movie feels like an embarrassing attempt by Hanks to be cool again, and the other by Vardalos to work the story into her signature blend of light-comic drama.
The result is so breezy that it slips into complete, complacent banality that cannot offer confrontation, much less insight. It doesn't even try. Even the dread Mr. Tainot's addiction to porn is toned down into girls in bikinis. German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder once wrote, "The good, the 'normal,' the 'beautiful' are always utterly revolting." If only the ones in "Larry Crowne" were that interesting. (PG-13) 99 min. S