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MOVIE REVIEW: Hanks' 'Larry Crowne' heads back to school

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Even for back-to-back Oscar winner Tom Hanks, there are a number of future professional limitations. Leading roles for over 50, average-looking men are sparse, and he isn’t the type of guy to act as second banana to anyone as a supporting/character player. Although he successfully pulled off playing a mob hitman (“Road to Perdition”), it’s unlikely anyone is ever going to want him to play a real villain.

While mostly humdrum, uneventful and innocuous, “Larry Crowne” is the perfect vehicle for Hanks’ mainstream sensibilities. It plays out as an overlong pilot for a network (not cable) sitcom, which makes sense as that’s where Hanks got his start (“Bosom Buddies”). Overstuffed with a highly competent Rainbow Coalition-approved set of backing players and a bankable leading lady (Julia Roberts), “Larry Crowne” is exceedingly eager to please and spectacularly average.

Making a movie in the middle of an economic downturn about a middle-aged man losing his job is not the kind of premise most audiences will find appealing, which may be why Hanks all but abandons it after the opening salvo. From then on, it plays out like a variation on “Extreme Makeover” with Hanks’ title character going from square and suburban to urban and quasi-hip.

After being let go from his middle-management job at a big-box retail store because he didn’t go to college, Larry decides to head back to school to get that degree which will, in theory, open more doors. He signs up for an economics 101 course and another that teaches people the art of eye contact and how to make small talk. At this rate with these types of courses, Larry can get his bachelor’s degree and land another job in retail around about the time he turns 70.

The small talk class is “taught” by Mercy (Roberts), a borderline alcoholic married to another (Bryan Cranston) who is unemployed and spends his time blogging and downloading soft-core porn. Mercy doesn’t seem very dedicated to her craft and would rather exercise a loophole that will allow her to cancel her classes. While played mostly for laughs, Mercy’s professional and marital doldrums do not make for a fitting subplot in a comedy.

Directed by Hanks with an ephemeral touch that makes his frequent collaborator Ron Howard come off looking like Fellini, “Larry Crowne” is perpetually sabotaged by the too perky, schizophrenic script penned by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, the screenwriter/star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame.

Both co-writers are funny people, but neither is as “edgy” as they perceive themselves to be. Each is fond of setup and exposition, yet are deathly afraid of any kind of substantial character development. Giving the lead character a new haircut, a wardrobe overhaul and having him trade in his SUV for a motor scooter is not development, it’s superfluous window dressing. From start to finish, each and every character remains exactly the same.

Luckily, the movie’s lackluster first half leads to a second with considerably more laughs and convincing drama. Hanks’ off-screen duties seem less like that of a director and more like a cheerleader/life coach. He was obviously successful in getting his cast to share his enthusiasm and it’s clear everyone had a grand time making the movie. It’s pleasant enough and offers an adequate counter-programming option for anyone who loathes the idea of taking in the new “Transformers” flick, but it could have and should have been much more than just OK. (Universal)