Julia Roberts has been a movie star for 20 years, Tom Hanks for almost 30.
So they both bring a lot of mileage to Larry Crowne, Hanks' second film as a writer-director. Yet that mileage translates as experience -- both as actors and as people. And that's a plus for this movie -- a big one.
Larry Crowne makes no bones about its attempt to tell an upbeat story. Undoubtedly, at a time when unemployment is soaring and lives are collapsing as a result, some may fault it for taking a sour subject -- losing a job in a down economy -- and turning it into a feel-good story. But Hanks' script -- cowritten with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame -- is about a guy with a positive attitude, with the will (and, admittedly, the resources) to move forward.
A long-time employee of a big-box store called UMart (think Wal-Mart, particularly after the recent Supreme Court decision), Larry is summoned to a meeting one day for what he assumes will be an "Employee of the Month" award -- his ninth. Instead, he is laid off because his lack of any college education prevents him from moving up the management track.
Larry, who spent 20 years as a cook in the Navy after high school, is upside-down on a mortgage he refinanced to buy his ex-wife out of his house. Unable to find a job, Larry says what the hell and enrolls at his local community college. He also starts to downsize his lifestyle, giving up his SUV to drive a gas-sipping scooter, raising cash with a yard sale and, eventually, selling his house.
He signs up for a speech class and Econ 1, instantly creating a new social circle for himself. He meets a cute coed (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who also rides a scooter and turns Larry into her own personal makeover project. They share an econ class, taught by a prissy and self-important professor, played by the hilarious George Takei.
His speech class is taught by an embittered woman named Mercedes (Roberts), who is unhappily married to an author-turned-blogger (Bryan Cranston). He spends his days blogging (and hiding the fact that he's mostly looking at big-breasted porn). When asked whether he's done any writing, he brags about all of his "posts." She's not buying it; she's also not happy at having to teach an 8 a.m. class. No wonder she drinks.
There aren't many huge dramatic moments in Larry Crowne. The conflict is minimal; so, seemingly, is the stress of unemployment on Larry (though he does take a job, working in a Navy buddy's restaurant as a short-order cook). This approach seems counter-intuitive, at a time when the nerve-wracking day-to-day reality for many people is job insecurity, foreclosure and loss, the continuing ripple effect of Bush-era economics.
But that's not the story Hanks is telling. Instead, he's focusing on one guy who, after 20 years in the Navy, has learned how not to rock his own boat. It's not that Hanks doesn't give Larry a panicky edge; the guy has seen the life he knows and enjoys upended by forces beyond his control. But he also gives Larry the calm center of a guy who believes in his ability to take charge of his own fate. Hanks plays the character with complexity; he's just not a show-off about it.
Similarly, Roberts finds ways to make us believe that this woman is deeply, darkly disappointed in her own ability to do exactly that: grab the reins of her life. At 43, she's still a beautiful woman -- but for this role, Roberts lets some of the years show. She captures the sense of someone who has lived her dream, only to see it turn into a nightmare from which she can't seem to extract herself. Where Larry moves forward, she just drinks -- until she can no longer deny the action she has to take.
No doubt Larry Crowne will be criticized for all of the things it doesn't do. It doesn't address the economic tragedy that Larry's situation means for so many people. It doesn't build to a life-and-death climax. It is, instead, a stealth comedy, low-key but consistently satisfying, a movie that focuses on the power of positivity without getting melodramatic about it.
Enjoy it for what it is -- skillfully made, well-acted, a movie that wants to evoke feelings as it makes you think -- and not for what others demand it ought to be.