For a movie called Larry Crowne, it sure is tough to get a solid read on the character of Larry Crowne. Directed, co-written by and starring Tom Hanks in that title role, the film seems to want to be some kind of post-recessional pick-me-up, an "It Gets Better" video for the struggling, aging-out American middle-class. And with its eager-to-please congeniality it almost works, but with a pacing that is at once comfortably assured and frustratingly slack, Larry Crowne never quite comes to life.
As the film opens, Larry seems content with his lot in life—at least, in the few short moments he is onscreen before being abruptly fired for lacking a college education from his job at U-Mart, a big-box store chain. This starts Larry off on a process of personal reinvention that finds him enrolling in community college as a way to better arm himself for the next job, becoming a motor-scooter enthusiast and almost inadvertently wooing his age-appropriate teacher (Julia Roberts).
There isn't much in the way of fresh-wound wallowing: Larry quickly gets to the business of starting over. Any dissatisfactions Larry may have before embarking on this new chapter in his life are glossed over quickly, with just a mention of having been passed by for a promotion and a relatively recent rough divorce. The film is so intent on remaining upbeat that it more or less forgets to acknowledge the negative.
A film about a late-middle-aged man forced to start fresh would presumably get some mileage from a stuck-in-his-ways reluctance to try new things, but Larry is immediately receptive to change, adapting quickly to exchanging texts with younger students, adopting a snazzy new wardrobe and even starting to wear a wallet chain. There is never a strong enough sense of what was missing from Larry's previous life to really appreciate who he is changing into.
Despite opening with a fast-paced montage of Larry at work set to ELO's bouncy "Hold On Tight" (and ending with ELO's "Calling America"), tonally Larry Crowne is actually more of a mid-tempo groover in line with the three Tom Petty songs it prominently features, including a scooter-riding sequence set to "Runnin' Down A Dream." Purposefully or not, the film takes on the character of those songs and their titles—unassuming and craftsman-like with a vague, if vaguely unconvincing, undercurrent of optimism.
Roberts, who seems to have settled permanently into her recent screen persona of always being vaguely pissed off, plays a character with more obvious things to be upset about as a community-college English teacher. As her husband, a struggling sci-fi writer who mistakes blog-reading and comment-leaving for actually being productive, Bryan Cranston provides a needed jolt of energy.
Larry Crowne seems to be in some sense about getting rid of your shit, dropping the baggage, be it physical or spiritual, that bogs each of us down. In trying to make Larry Crowne the character into a free-floating everyman, Hanks turns Larry Crowne the movie into something disconcertingly untethered, generalizing contemporary issues of downsizing and foreclosure and worries about gas mileage and accepting The New into something so blithely nondescript as to carry no real weight.