Stars’ chemistry lifts ‘Larry Crowne’

Reviewer’s Rating ★★

Tom Hanks co-writes, directs and stars in Larry Crowne, his second film with co-star Julia Roberts. Hanks and Roberts are longtime friends who previously appeared in 2007’s behind-the-scenes political comedy, Charlie Wilson’s War. Their on-screen charisma is the best reason to see Larry Crowne, a middling romantic comedy about a middle-aged man who reinvents himself.

The film introduces Hanks’ Larry as an amiable, enthusiastic guy who enjoys his job at U-Mart, a Sam’s Club-style store where he’s worked since his retirement from 20 years in the U.S. Navy.

Though Larry is an obvious asset to U-Mart, corporate policy dictates that his lack of a college education means he has reached his maximum potential at the company. Coldly informed by higher-ups that he’s been cut loose, Larry is shocked.

“I thought I was gonna be employee of the month,” he reacts.

Larry hits the streets in search of another job in retail management but he gets no offers. His friend and neighbor, Lamar (Cedric The Entertainer), gives him an idea: go to college.

So Hanks’ Larry Crowne - like Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon in the superior 1986 comedy Back To School - enrolls in college.

Hanks co-wrote Larry Crowne with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. Their simplistic script may rush good things into Larry’s downtrodden life too easily. On the other hand, Larry opts to try something new and he’s open enough to say yes to the new friends and opportunities that come to him at East Valley Community College.

The aptly vivacious Gugu Mbatha-Raw co-stars as Talia, Larry’s fellow community college student. Talia takes this man who’s decades older than she is under her pretty wing.

“You are way cooler than you appear,” she tells him.

Some of the film’s more amusing scenes feature Talia’s Latino boyfriend, Dell (Wilmer Valderrama), and his puzzled to miffed reactions to his girlfriend’s affection, albeit platonic, for Larry. It’s likely to puzzle audiences, too, but there might not be a movie here if Talia, the story’s catalyst, weren’t around to instigate changes in Larry’s behavior.

Like Larry, Mercedes Tainot, the sour community college teacher Julie Roberts plays, is at a crossroads. In a joyless marriage and disinterested in teaching, she, too, is a candidate for a new start.

Of course, Mercedes finds her new start in Larry, one of her speech class students, but only after the usual false starts and miscues in this especially lightweight and sketchy romantic comedy are worked through.

The charm and chemistry Hanks and Roberts endow their underwritten roles with carry this story about two people starting over. They make the movie better than it deserves to be.