Silver Screen: Larry Crowne *1/2

Silver Screen: Larry Crowne  *1/2
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Silver Screen: Larry Crowne *1/2
Bryan Miller

Chris Rock has an interesting approach to testing new material for his standup act. When the bombastic comedian tries out new ideas at smaller club shows, he intentionally downplays his trademark delivery, talking in an even tone and letting the jokes live or die on their own accord. His logic is that he knows he can sell a joke, and can in fact usually get big laughs with the force of his stage presence alone. It's only when he underplays the delivery that Rock can get a sense of how good the actual material is.

That's a lesson Tom Hanks might take to heart. Just as Rock is one of the true masters of standup, there's almost nobody better than Hanks at playing the lead in a romantic comedy. He's effortlessly charming, equally adept at selling a big line or drawing a funny reaction out of a small moment, eminently sympathetic. But when Larry Crowne works-- which is only occasionally, in fits and starts-- it works because Hanks is selling it. Peel away the goodwill he so casually generates, though, and the material turns out to be weak indeed.

The premise is unexceptional but serviceable enough. Hanks, who also cowrites and directs, stars as the title character, an easygoing manager at a big-box store who is downsized by the company, ostensibly because the longtime employee and Navy vet doesn't have a college degree. Divorced, broke, and running out of options, Larry sinks into the briefest of funks before his goofy neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) convinces him to go to college.

At the indeterminate big community college/small four-year university, a generic institute of higher learning, Larry quickly pals up with a free-spirited girl who has renamed herself Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and who dubs Larry “Lance Corona.” She inducts him into a club of fellow motor-scooter riders led by her uniquely unthreatening boyfriend (That Seventies Show's Wilmer Valderrama, utterly inessential), and sets about remaking his house and his appearance.

Larry gets gussied up just in time to meet Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), a boozy, depressed professor whose de vivre lacks a little joie. While reshaping his life, Larry tries to make a place for Mercedes in it, but she's thorny and cynical and thus takes at least twenty minutes to melt under the warm glow of that ol' Hanks charm.

Hanks deserves credit where credit is due for not dragging his film toward the easy drama of love triangles, shocking third-act revelations, or ginned-up conflicts. Larry Crowne is the story of an average guy reinventing himself and discovering an entire world outside of his comfort zone. The trouble is, the film has almost no definitive conflict; Larry's character arc is pretty much done within the first half-hour of the film, and the next hour is an interminable epilogue with a seriously fractured romantic subplot.

If the first third of the movie is Man versus Recession, the remainder is Man versus Impatient Shrew. Roberts, still astoundingly pretty and graceful as she ages, is borderline intolerable as the grim, joyless Mercedes. The other characters call her Mercy, but it sounds less like a moniker and more like a plea for amnesty from her withering gaze. To make viewers feel better about her bitterness, and presumably also about how she's inevitably going to leave him for Larry, the film positions her husband as a total chump, a washed-up, self-involved sci-fi writer who spends all day looking at porn and commenting on blog posts. Dynamo TV actor Bryan Cranston has the unenviable task of playing the role, and he's asked to basically just be wormy and awful until the implied promise of his departure.

As for Larry's ex-wife, not only do we hear almost nothing about her, we get no sense of her as a person or even as a missing element in Larry's life. Everything outside of Hanks's frame vanishes into thin air, as if the world of the film turned blank beyond the lens's view, while everything inside the frame is a storm of quirkiness and forced whimsy.

To make up for Larry Crowne’s paucity of conflict and general plotlessness, Hanks and cowriter Nia Vardalos pile on the eccentric supporting characters, almost all of whom turn out to be charmless. Mbatha-Raw is awfully fetching, but her Talia is a standard-issue Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and she makes no sense except as a plot device. The rest of Larry's classmates lack the depth to make them worthy guest stars on an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter, from the clueless slacker stereotype to the oddball dean of students. The only bit player who scores a direct hit is Mister Sulu himself, George Takei, very funny as Larry's strange but effective economics teacher. Their scenes together, despite having almost no larger purpose, are the most grounded and believable moments in the movie, and with a little tinkering could potentially have been the seed for a far more interesting, alternate take on Larry Crowne. Alas, unlike its title character, the film isn't going to get a chance to reinvent itself.