Tom Hanks has an affinity for playing affable ordinary guys, which I guess makes him the Jimmy Stewart of his generation. Stewart, however, had a dual career playing characters – in "Vertigo" above all – stretched to the edge of doom. Hanks has been far less willing to tempt the dark side. If his new film, "Larry Crowne," is any indication, affability is still his calling card.
He plays the eponymous title character, a popular employee at a big-box retailer who is unaccountably laid off because he lacks a college degree. Dazed but resourceful, he enrolls in a local junior college, where his course work includes an economics class and a course in "the art of informal remarks." It's not clear how taking a couple of classes in a junior college is going to help a 50-plus man get a job, but let that pass.
The economics teacher, played with straight-faced hilarity by George Takei, is a martinet who confiscates Larry's cellphone. The other instructor, Mercedes, is played by Julia Roberts with a sashaying cynicism that almost matches Cameron Diaz's in "Bad Teacher." This sort of thing must be in the air.
Larry supports himself in a diner as a short-order cook, something he knows about from 20 years in the Navy after graduating high school. (We're supposed to feel good about the fact that Larry didn't go to college because he was too busy serving his country.) He also joins a biker club – biker gang would be stretching it – at the flirty behest of Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a classmate who revamps his dingy wardrobe and dubs him "Lance Corona."
Larry is boringly practical. He uses the economics class to plot his financial future. Faced with Talia's coy innocence, he acts coyly innocent. The real romance is supposed to be between Larry and Mercedes, whose husband (Bryan Cranston), a porn-obsessed layabout, makes it conveniently easy for her to stray.
Hanks and Roberts costarred once before, in "Charlie Wilson's War," and once again, they generate surprisingly little chemistry. Roberts isn't bad here, but she's playing a character who, by all evidence, just wants to be left alone. Her fitful attraction to the gentlemanly Larry seems like a short-order romance cooked up by the filmmakers.
Hanks, who also directed, co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), which may explain why the romantic angle seems shoehorned into a plot that could easily have done without it. It's enough that these two castaways are friends, but I guess friendship doesn't cut it when you're trying to create a star-driven hit. It should, though. Better a believable friendship than an unbelievable love affair. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content.)