Nearly 15 years have passed since Tom Hanks last directed a film. I count myself a big fan of 1996's That Thing You Do!, so I was anxiously anticipating Hanks getting in the director's chair again. Had I known that when he finally did direct again, the result would be the tepid, wholly unbelievable dud (and box office flop) Larry Crowne, I don't think I would have been so anxious.
Hanks co-wrote the film with My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos (seriously, how did that movie make so much money?), and has said repeatedly in interviews that the two spent about six years fine-tuning the script. You'd never guess that from the finished product. This feels like more of a first draft in need of a serious overhaul and massive rewrites. Six years in, and nobody thought twice about placing so much focus on the Scooter Gang? Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit.
Hanks plays Larry Crowne, nice guy, hard worker. The movie opens with him getting laid off from his job because he never went to college. So, he does what any rational person in that situation would do: go to college. He enrolls in a handful of classes, including a speech class taught by a boozy, jaded Julia Roberts, and an economics class taught by a no-nonsense, phone-confiscating Sulu (er, George Takei). The main hook of the movie is seeing grown-up Hanks go back to school and crush on his teacher (Roberts, not Sulu). But Hanks and Co. spend so much time on other things that it plays like an afterthought.
You see, Larry Crowne is instantly befriended by Talia (Undercovers' Gugu Mbatha-Raw), one of the most irritating and stupid characters you'll ever have the displeasure of seeing on screen. She's supposed to be the ultimate pixie dream girl - but she comes off like a nightmare. Why she takes a liking to Larry right away I'll never know. She dresses him, gives him relationship tips, and asks him to join her Scooter Gang. Yes, she has a Scooter Gang (Wilmer Valderrama plays her jealous boyfriend and leader of the pack). She also exchanges dumb-ass texts with Larry (which we see on screen, like it's a Saved by the Bell episode or something). Oh, and she refuses to call him Larry Crowne because that name isn't cool enough - instead, she calls him Lance Corona. If that story detail doesn't annoy the hell out of you, then your B.S. tolerance is much higher than mine.
Roberts is saddled with her own ridiculous plot line - something about a porn-addicted husband who likes big boobs. The husband merely exists as a plot device - keeps Roberts' character unavailable for most of the movie, but then lets her easily break up with him so she can be with Larry by the end. The silver lining is that Bryan Cranston (so amazing on Breaking Bad) plays the husband, but even he can't do much with the role.
Larry's classmates are a boring bunch that all fail to register as real people. Credit should go to Hanks and the casting director for keeping the cast so diverse, but diversity alone doesn't buy you interesting characters. Hanks showed real foresight in casting so many rising stars in That Thing You Do!, but is not so lucky this time around. I still like his directing style though: crisp, clean, relaxed. Hanks being Hanks, he comes out of this fiasco smelling like a rose with his innate likeability still intact.
It's a shame this one couldn't get the job done. In a summer full of superheroes and sequels, the field was wide open for an adult romantic comedy with some timely economic themes to jump in and offer some worthwhile counter-programming. Hanks and Roberts seemed like the perfect pair to make it happen, but, alas, movie stars can't buy you quality anymore. And given the weak box office this past weekend, they can't really buy you commercial success either. Looks like we're going to be stuck with giant f**king robots for the foreseeable future. That, or bridesmaids shitting in sinks. Ah, summer. Still beats hanging with "Lance Corona" and the Scooter Gang.