There’s little on the mind of Larry Crowne, an almost proudly weightless romantic comedy directed by and starring Tom Hanks, but that doesn’t mean it will leave audiences without anything to think about. Above all, the film offers a neat lesson in the pros and cons of movie stars, whose presence can elevate even the slimmest material with sheer charisma, then drag it back down when that charisma gets overtaxed. Hanks and co-star Julia Roberts are born stars—or at least extremely practiced ones—which serves them well here until it becomes apparent that the film has little going for it beyond their personal appeal. The story feels half-considered, the relationships thin, and the direction visually indifferent. (Those charges couldn’t be leveled at Hanks’ previous directorial effort, 1996’s That Thing You Do!) It’s as if Hanks and co-writer Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) assumed that getting everyone in one place would be enough, and didn’t think much further.
They should have. Hanks plays the title character, a divorced Navy veteran and longtime employee of a Walmart-like chain who’s fired because he never went to college, thus can’t advance any further in the company. Rather than filing what seemingly should be an extremely lucrative wrongful-dismissal suit, Hanks follows the advice of the quirky next-door neighbors (Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson) and enrolls in a community college. There, he strikes up a friendship with even-quirkier fellow student Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who takes on the duties of a strictly platonic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, giving Hanks a makeover, enlisting him into her “gang” of moped enthusiasts, and encouraging his interest in one of his teachers, a bitter, perpetually hungover English instructor played by Julia Roberts.
Mbatha-Raw’s interest in Hanks’ life drives the action, but the film itself keeps a curious distance from its characters. Hanks remains as effortlessly disarming as ever, but beyond better opportunities at gainful employment, the film never clarifies what he wants, out of life in general or his relationship with Roberts in particular. Where his character feels undefined, Roberts’ is painted in the broadest possible strokes: We learn she’s professionally disillusioned and in the final stages of a dying marriage to Bryan Cranston, but little about who she is. She looks dour, but occasionally bursts into the smile that made her famous, and there’s little to her character between those two extremes.
A few of the supporting players have better luck: Mbatha-Raw is charming, Better Off Ted’s Malcolm Barrett has some nice moments as a goofy classmate, and George Takei finds some of the film’s only real laughs as an eccentric econ professor. (Meanwhile, a scene in which Cranston defends his porn-surfing habits by drunkenly barking “I like big knockers” seems destined to be on nobody’s future highlight reel.) As a director, Hanks allows his leads a couple of engaging, relaxed moments together, but they make the forced pleasantness around them that much more annoying. To be any flimsier, Larry Crowne would have to be projected on Kleenex.