Larry Crowne

Few actors are as universally beloved as Tom Hanks, and a turkey like “Larry Crowne” isn’t going to change that, even though Hanks is responsible for writing and directing it, too. Like Hanks, the movie is easy-going and good-natured; unlike Hanks, it is so easy-going and good-natured that it becomes bland and tiresome. It gives you no reason, from one minute to the next, to even keep watching.

Hanks plays the title character, a dedicated retail employee who enrolls in community college after being downsized, hoping that having a degree will make him more marketable in the future. Randomly, the dean of students (Holmes Osborne) sees Larry in the hallway and tells him the basic courses he should take: speech, economics, and composition. We never see the composition class. The economics class is taught by George Takei and has no function in the narrative other than to give Larry a laughably false sense of security later on when he gives someone financial advice. The speech class is where the action is. (The dean even drops by a couple times, though he never serves a purpose after that initial encounter.)

The teacher, Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot, is played by Julia Roberts, who’s up there with Hanks on the scale of universal belovedness. Mercy is bored with her career, and with her shiftless husband (Bryan Cranston). When she mistakenly believes that Larry is dating a younger classmate named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she randomly becomes a bitter “down with love” type, even though such an attitude was never suggested before and never resurfaces.

This Talia girl takes an interest in Larry as a project. She wants to de-nerd his clothing, fix his hairstyle, and so forth. Talia and her friends ride scooters everywhere, and invite Larry, a recent scooter convert, to join them. Talia has a boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama) who kind of pretends to be jealous sometimes, but not really. He chooses the times to be jealous — you guessed it — randomly.

Across the street from Larry are a couple played by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson who are constantly having a yard sale. This, like everything else in the film, is completely random and has no bearing on anything else.

Where is all this headed? Are Larry and Mercy going to fall in love? Is Larry going to learn something important by going back to school? Darned if I know, or care. Seldom have I seen a movie as lifeless, pointless, and useless as this one. It lacks the basic element of a story: a conflict. The few hurdles Larry faces — including seemingly major ones like losing his house — are handled quickly and without drama. There are no antagonists. Every character is nice and friendly and helpful. It’s as if the movie thinks that we are a person with a serious heart condition and must not be even slightly stirred up.

Now, you might point out that some very successful comedies don’t have much in the way of conflict or plot, either. That is true. The reason they are successful, though, is that they are funny. You don’t notice how thin the material is if you’re busy laughing. “Larry Crowne” is a comedy, yet it’s rarely more than moderately amusing. We mustn’t do anything to aggravate that heart condition! That means no belly laughs, either!

I’d be curious to have an experienced screenwriter get a hold of the screenplay (which Hanks co-wrote with Nia Vardalos) and examine it page by page, asking questions like, “Why is this character doing this?” and “Why is this character even in the movie?” and “What purpose does this scene serve?” and “What is the story arc?” and “Is it even remotely plausible that someone as outgoing and personable as Larry would be such an inarticulate public speaker when the speech class begins?” The margins would soon be filled with question marks scribbled in red ink, and the experienced screenwriter would have a migraine.

I note that the other movie Hanks wrote and directed, “That Thing You Do!,” likewise has no antagonists and skips merrily through all its conflicts. How could an actor as experienced and proficient as Hanks misapprehend the basics of storytelling on such a fundamental level? And how could a man so adept at comedy, and so savvy in general, be responsible for such a flavorless pile of glop? I’m baffled.

D+ (1 hr., 39 min.; PG-13, one F-word, mild sexual innuendo.)