Co-written and directed by the Forrest Gump star, Tom Hanks plays Larry, a middle-aged man with an optimistic view on life and a great work ethic in his job at the local hypermarket, where he has worked since leaving the navy. His life is crushed, however, when he is ‘downsized’ - fired due to his lack of college education - and suddenly finds himself with a lot of free time and a lot of bills to pay. Joining the local college to ensure this doesn’t happen again, Larry begins to rebuild his life in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Making a new group of young friends in a ‘moped gang’, taking control of his finances, and finding a voice through a class on public speaking, led by cynical teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts). With her marriage on the rocks and her career filled with little reward, in Larry she finds a reason to love teaching again, and the pair may just have found each other at the right time.
Story-wise Larry Crowne is a hard pill to swallow. The recession can be a dark subject, however this is a very Hollywood take on the financial meltdown and those who fall victim to corporate downsizing. There seems to be little urgency as our protagonist goes from one not-that-intimidating obstacle to the next, and his friendships, whilst charming, seem unrealistic (any 50+ moped gang members feel free to correct us).
The film’s appeal is very simple - the Hanks factor. The man is just so darn likeable that it’s hard not to will him to succeed as he rebuilds his life with all the enthusiasm of a puppy. You believe him, and so you believe Larry. Anybody else in the lead would have made this a disaster, particularly as his co-star certainly doesn’t show up for work. Roberts portrays Mercedes as frosty and, frankly, rude, to the point where it’s less a case of Larry winning her over, more her trying to win the audience. There’s little chemistry between the pair, but strong support abounds from the likes of Cedric The Entertainer in a familiar but welcome comedy relief role, Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston as Mercedes’ porn-loving husband, and a hilarious George Takei as Larry’s eccentric economics teacher. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is solid as Larry’s free-spirited college friend, a kind of interesting twist on the rom-com ‘best friend’ role.
While this could be construed as Hanks (a man who surely hasn’t had to worry about money since the late eighties) trying to tell us how to survive the recession, a more pleasant (and feasible) scenario is that this is a light and cheerful, if slightly naïve, twenty first century take on the American Dream. Even a phoning-it-in Roberts can’t stop the Hanks charm offensive, and this too-good-to-be-true dramedy may just win you over despite its flaws.