By general consensus, Tom Hanks is the nicest man in Hollywood. "Nice" is something we seek in the real world; basic pleasantness helps lubricate every social interaction. That said, "nice" doesn't mesh very well with "interesting," and Hanks missteps most egregiously as an actor when he abandons any shred of darkness or complexity. His second directorial outing, the mild comedy Larry Crowne, crystallizes the limitations of nice.
Hanks plays the title character, a divorced, middle-aged Navy veteran who must take college classes after being downsized from his job at a Walmart-esque store. He enrolls in a speech course taught by the sarcastic, burned-out Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who drinks to dull the pain of both her dying marriage and her seemingly stalled career. Larry quickly befriends his fellow classmates, including Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a scooter-driving free spirit who gives Larry's wardrobe, hair, and apartment a much-needed makeover despite the jealousy of her boyfriend, Dell (Wilmer Valderamma). Eventually Talia attempts to play matchmaker between Larry and Mrs. Tainot, and Larry begins to get more control over his financial life thanks to the lessons learned from his econ professor (George Takei).
Right from the opening montage showing us how dependable and capable Larry is at the job he's about to lose, director Hanks makes sure we understand what a good and competent human Larry Crowne is -- he's basically Forrest Gump without the mental deficiencies and the uncanny running ability (the two aspects of that character that made him interesting). Larry's bland, sitcommy interactions with his neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) and his fellow classmates may trigger a smile or two, but on the whole -- in this movie -- Hanks purposefully avoids engaging his audience emotionally. Nothing seems at risk; there is no conflict. Because it's Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in the lead roles, and because the tone is so ceaselessly pleasant and mild, there's no question how this is going to end -- therefore, even the love story fails to work up any real interest.
That Thing You Do!, Hanks' directorial debut, was also full of likable characters, but there was a sense of looming darkness at the edges of the picture -- doomed love, cynical showbiz handlers -- that made the characters, with their innocent dreams of stardom, all the more lovable. Larry Crowne lacks that darkness. It has the same kind of benign inoffensiveness that made My Big Fat Greek Wedding the biggest independent comedy hit of all time, and it comes as absolutely no surprise to see that that film's creator, Nia Vardalos, co-wrote this film with Hanks. Their collaboration has the stale feel of a sitcom pilot -- the best laughs are one-liners, and none of the supporting cast members are asked to break out of the one-note comic stereotype they're supposed to embody (Rami Malek is a stupid stoner, Rita Wilson is an unctuous bank official, Cedric the Entertainer is a cheapskate lottery winner, etc., etc., etc.).
The only time the movie has any life is in Roberts' first two scenes. Mercedes is so full of bitterness and bile, and her husband (Bryan Cranston) is such an unapologetic jerk, that for a few minutes we hope the movie might be something more than an inoffensive time-killer. Sadly, her problems are easily smoothed over by the onslaught of Larry's inexhaustible good-naturedness, and eventually the film becomes an ode to blandness.
For seemingly two decades, Tom Hanks, who is now in his fifties, has carried the baggage of being his generation's Jimmy Stewart. When Stewart was in his fifties, he made Vertigo -- as frightening and compelling a portrait of humanity's dark side as Hollywood has ever produced. Hanks is running in the opposite direction with this movie. He needs and deserves roles that play against his good-guy image. Larry Crowne doesn't remind us of Stewart, it reminds us of Bosom Buddies-era Hanks without the energy or the charisma.