Larry Crowne: An upbeat training film for the over-the-hill gang
If the Baby Boom discovered its founding image when Peter Fonda straddled a chopper in "Easy Rider," then "Larry Crowne" gives us the midlife update.
It's Tom Hanks on a motor scooter, a visual that adroitly summarizes the generation's expanded waistline and diminished fortunes.
All we need is Steppenwolf singing "Born to be Fired."
Viewed through the prism of the recession, "Larry Crowne" is a perversely upbeat training film for discarded, obsolete, over-the-hill workers.
Larry (Hanks) is a guy who loses his management job, trades his SUV and stuff for a used scooter, and put-puts along to his new job in the fast-food industry.
And he couldn't be happier, because, darn it, middle-aged people need to shake up their lives once in a while. Nothing concentrates the mind like poverty, and nothing motivates like a grindingly repetitive low-wage job. So turn that frown upside down, 14-unemployed-million Americans.
Perhaps our Baby Boom biker icons have made the transition to Valium.
In fairness to "Larry Crowne," it wasn't conceived as a movie about the recession. Writer-director-star Hanks came up with the idea several years ago, after reading about a big-box retailer that fired workers to prevent them from qualifying for pension benefits. He combined that with a long-gestating idea about the people he met (in pre-stardom days) while attending community college.
He ended up with "Larry Crowne," intended as a low-key comedy about a man reinventing himself.
Its main asset is Hanks, back in genial everyman mode as Larry, determined to remain positive after losing his wife (he's newly divorced), then the management job he'd held for decades. After a fruitless job search, he decides to fill the empty hours by attending community college, where he catches the eye of Mercedes (Julia Roberts), a teacher whose own marriage has just broken up.
"Crowne" is a chance to see Hanks and Roberts, former rom-com stars who've been estranged from the genre in recent years - try to weave some of the old magic. And there is potential, surely, for a second-time-around romance in the hands of two skilled performers.
They don't click, though. I don't think director Hanks works hard enough to find the character details to make this situation specific and convincing. Larry and Mercedes are always Tom and Julia, inevitably, separated only by plot mechanics.
Ancillary characters register poorly - Larry's generically kooky classmates, a young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who recruits Larry into her moped gang, inviting the comic jealousy of her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderamma). George Takei is Larry's eccentric and not terribly funny economics teacher.
Cedric the Entertainer pops up as Larry's neighbor, a man who's found the secret to success in the new economy. He's won the lottery. And spends his time selling junk at his own full-time yard sale.
Again, if there were some real desperation behind this, it might add up to something. But it seems like a less imaginative version of "Everything Must Go," just as "Larry" seems like a soft, low-stakes version of "Company Men."