Larry Crowne (Hanks) is made redundant from his supermarket job because he doesn't have a college degree and, with other jobs thin on the ground, decides to become a student. In community college he meets new friends, and develops an interest in his unhappily married teacher, Mercedes (Roberts).
It's hard to imagine what sort of public meltdown would be necessary to dislodge Tom Hanks from the world’s affections. The near-supernatural amiability of the star is such that it would probably require televised puppy murder while brandishing a copy of Mein Kampf to so much as dent his likability. And it’s that generous charisma that carries his second directorial effort along, despite a meandering and largely meaningless plot.
While 1996’s That Thing You Do! had a clear arc, this is a less focused tale. Hanks’ Crowne is a puppyishly enthusiastic team leader in a large store. When he is made redundant and can’t find other work, he switches his SUV for a scooter, and work for community college. Soon he’s making a new, disparate bunch of friends, accepting tuition from Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and forming a crush on his teacher, Mercedes (Julia Roberts).
Crowne’s a good guy, and a hero to root for, but the plot is also puppyishly enthusiastic, dashing around to spend time with Mercedes and her no-goodnik husband (Bryan Cranston), show us classroom scenes from both speech class and economics (George Takei in arch and scene-stealing form as the latter’s professor), join a scooter gang, visit with Crowne’s neighbours, land a part-time job, and allow Talia to drop out of college to open a vintage store. It’s the sort of rich detail that nicely creates a sense of community, but if — as the title suggests — this is one man’s journey, it’s beside the point. For long stretches the putative lead is so neglected that elements essential to his story — like the love story with Mercedes — end up a little under-cooked. While Roberts’ character is well developed, thawing gradually from a disappointed near-alcoholic into someone infected by Crowne’s optimism almost despite herself, the pair together needed just a tiny bit more attention.
That said, like That Thing You Do!, this is such a well-intentioned film it would take a hard heart to reject it outright. We could wish that Hanks had been a less generous writer/director, and kept the focus more on his own character, or that he had dared to tread more political territory with some discussion of the economy, but what’s here is a gentle and — yes — likable character story.
This one coasts by on Hanks immense appeal and charm, but more focus and a touch more sharpness are needed to make it really come alive.