The victim of corporate downsizing, middle-aged Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) finds himself at a loose end. Meanwhile, a college professor (Julia Roberts) has lost her passion for her career and her marriage. When Larry enrolls at this college, they find they can help each other get their lives back on track.

Recession-era romance feels forced.

Larry Crowne is the cinematic equivalent of a kind Uncle, who, finding you’re down about things, is determined to perk you up by suggesting a set of new opportunities and possibilities designed to keep the blues at bay. Or, to put it another way, Larry Crowne is a movie self-help book. It’s so relentlessly upbeat about life and all its glories it makes The Oprah Winfrey Show look like a melancholy mood piece. Actually, the plot sounds like a riff from an Oprah segment.

Reduced to essentials, the movie is about a 50-ish supermarket worker, Larry, who is retrenched from his job and gets a makeover. He falls in love with a teacher played by Julia Roberts. This makes him feel better. In terms of movie lore, it’s a safe bet that this scenario seems intended to make us feel good. Trouble is, Larry is played by Tom Hanks so right away there’s no suspense; since the movie seems to have undergone an angst bypass in its conception and execution, and since Hanks confronts every challenge, set-back and confusion with a smile, it seems a sure thing that by the fade out everything will work out – for Larry and everyone else in the movie (and by implication, for the universe).

So then, Larry Crowne seems less a movie of plot and dramatic dynamics, than one constructed on the basis of incidental pleasures; but sadly the movie is a gag-free zone and the performances have a sitcom brightness that’s a scene killer; every single character here is predictably sweet, or bumbling or whatever.

Still there are a couple of bright spots in the cast; 20-something English actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a college buddy of Larry’s, Talia. She adopts him (if she didn’t, the movie would be much shorter and a lot less perky since there’s not much else going on in the story). Talia introduces him to her terminally hip scooter club, feng-shui and a dress sense designed to make him look less like an off-duty cop. In Talia’s hands Larry ends up with a sub-FHM wardrobe that makes him look more chic-desperate than chez-cool, but this uncomfortable aspect of the storyline is overlooked in deference to the movie's romantic sub-plot.

Roberts has come in for a lot of flak for this movie; but the problems seem more in the writing than in the performance. Hanks, who not only directs here but co-wrote the script with Nia Vardolos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), hasn’t given Roberts much to do besides pout, drink and endure her slothful, lying husband, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who spends his working days cruising porn sites for super-sized models, when he should be exploring the web for 'job opportunities".

Still, once Larry gets interested in Mercy (Roberts) the movie gets better and that’s mostly because Roberts is still very good at rolling her eyes, and timing her comic double-takes so that they convey just the right edge of a confusing mix of embarrassment, contempt and interest.

Some US critics have positioned Larry Crowne as a movie that speaks to the crisis in the world economy; a sort of modern Frank Capra movie about life after the pink-slip. In movies like Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Capra never cheated his audience about the stark realities that lay outside the margins of his optimistic stories. There was always a lot of pain.

Capra’s movies earned their much-maligned happy endings precisely because he accepted the idea that life could be brutal. Larry Crowne is sweet and modest but it’s also bogus, because it taps a harsh reality and turns it into a plot device. It isn’t a movie about work or the need to work and the terrible anguish that comes with being told you are of no longer any use. Here, there’s no sense of loss. It’s a movie about celebrating cosmetic therapy. It’s the worst kind of escapist movie. Its feel-goodness feels very bad because it wants to be congratulated for being so nice.

Happy endings need to be earned and if they're not, they feel fake and programmed like a machine designed to deliver a smile.

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1 hour 39 min
In Cinemas 21 July 2011,
Fri, 12/02/2011 - 11