Nia Vardalos’ and Tom Hanks’ script for “Larry Crowne” is a painful and embarrassing experiment in light-hearted comedy. This ridiculous disaster tries so hard to be funny and falls so violently flat to the floor that you almost want to give it a hug as the credits roll. The feeling is even more pronounced by the complete lack of emotion evoked by the characters themselves, and the plot moves forward in mindless and predictable fashion. Never for a single moment is the inevitable happy ending in doubt, no matter how desperately Vardalos and Hanks try to create narrative tension and real conflict. At times heart-wrenchingly terrible while in other moments simply dull, “Larry Crowne” will give you little more than a strong sense of empathy for the unfortunate cast and crew, shackled to a mind-bogglingly mediocre screenplay.
The humor lies somewhere between New Yorker cartoons and “Family Circus.” Jokes take as material the weakest of cultural clichés and most over-used areas of technophobic silliness. The film unknowingly challenges its audience with a somewhat fundamental question: can optimism ruin a movie? A week after “Bad Teacher,” a film geared to the lowest common denominator of schadenfreude and mean-spirited comedy, “Larry Crowne” tries to cater to an older audience with a riskless narrative and inanely sunny humor. Despite its treatment of darker subjects like unemployment and divorce, the movie turns out to be just as uninspired and dull as the aforementioned cartoons.
There are quite a few jokes in the film; the failure is not for lack of trying. The problem just turns out to be the trying itself. You can feel the failed humor in the movie, and the dialog is clearly edited for laugh breaks that never come. The story and its characters are simply too earnest for anything to seem even remotely witty or clever. Larry Crowne (Hanks), recently unemployed and without a Bachelor’s Degree, goes to community college on the advice of his lottery-winning neighbors. He ends up taking a public speaking class with Professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), which seems to involve a lot of standing up and talking but not much actual learning. Never experiencing an ounce of self-doubt, Larry marches forward into his new life to bring joy to all and earnestly improve himself.
The sap factor isn’t left alone there, of course. Enter Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the inevitable manic pixie dreamgirl. It’s almost impressive that even with this particular trope so well exhaustively articulated in the film world, someone like Vardalos has the guts to write an exact copy of the stereotype without a single deviation from the mold. She rides a whimsical scooter, à la “Garden State,” loves vintage clothes and insists on calling Larry “Lance Corona.” She just magically appears in his life without almost no character development of her own, and proceeds to remake his house, his hair and his wardrobe. There’s also dependable and optimistic support by Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Pam Grier, Rami Malek and George Takei, but none of it helps push the narrative out of its profoundly uninteresting inevitability.
The one area Hanks and Vardalos try injecting with some conflict is Mercedes’ marriage, to the lazy and misanthropic Dean (an unfortunately misused Bryan Cranston). Mercedes and Dean hate each other, primarily because she’s tired and he watches a lot of internet porn. And while that’s a bit of an oversimplification, the film really doesn’t offer much else. Similar to Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in “Midnight in Paris,” one wonders how Mercedes even ended up with this guy in the first place, though in “Larry Crowne” it’s much more of an obvious problem. There’s absolutely no context for their marital explosion, and even the immediate reasons for their arguing make little sense. Even the porn is barely porn, photos clearly rendered harmless by the need for PG-13 (which is silly in itself, as no one under 18 is going to see this movie). The break-up of the marriage is the film’s grandest attempt to create tension and conflict, and its failure to intrigue or inflame sets up the following boredom.
Finally, the jokes are bad in and of themselves. So much of the humor is of the amused, tech-illiterate New Yorker variety, the “look! It’s a dog texting! How droll!” school of comedy. Crowne gets his phone confiscated for texting in class, Dean’s blogging is equated with laziness and incessant masturbation, and the failure of today’s students is attributed to Facebook and Twitter. There are countless awkward moments in which the film pauses for a laugh, but the room is deadly silent. Without enough successful jokes to even push things toward comedy, “Larry Crowne” seems to prove pretty clearly that nothing this earnest or optimistic can succeed.
“Larry Crowne” opens today everywhere.
Recommended if you like: New Yorker cartoons; “The Terminal”; scooters