Leave it to Tom Hanks to get us through these dire economic times.

Better than Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul, President Obama or Ben Bernanke, the man who won an Oscar for playing the fleet-footed simpleton Forrest Gump has figured out how to cope with unemployment, underwater mortgages, and rocketing prices at the pump.

In Larry Crowne, a recession-era romantic comedy in which Hanks takes on the title role, and which he also directed and coscripted, the almost-always-ingratiating star plays an impossibly nice, middle-aged divorcé who has to reinvent himself when he loses his job - as a sales clerk in a store that looks very much like a Wal-Mart.

So, how does he do it?

By swapping out his gas-guzzler for a used Yamaha scooter, walking away from the home he can no longer afford, enrolling in community college, and getting Julia Roberts to fall in love with him.


Too cute for its own good, Larry Crowne is nonetheless hard to dislike. Hanks, who makes the transformation from an eager-beaver chain-store employee to a late-in-life college student, with only a few face-quavering moments of angst along the way, knows how to get audiences to like him. It's not even a conscious thing - like Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks can do American Everyman in his sleep: earnest, stalwart, a little goofy, perhaps, but that just makes him all the more appealing. And Roberts, who plays East Valley Community College professor Mercedes Tainot, does that Julia Roberts thing she does: She walks down hallways on amazing Julia Roberts legs, curls her Julia Roberts lips in a sexy huff, pops her Julia Roberts eyes wide open, and turns on the high-beam Julia Roberts smile.

Add a cast of supporting characters who all get their turn to crack wise and crank up the charm - Cedric the Entertainer, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, and the criminally charismatic Gugu Mbatha-Raw - and you have a summer diversion that, at least, doesn't involve giant robots from outer space, or misfit mutants plotting to nuke the planet. Larry Crowne, like its unprepossessing name, works on some kind of basic human scale. It may not be grounded in reality, exactly, but Hanks and Nia (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) Vardalos' screenplay is still identifiable as emanating from a real place.

(It would be instructive to put Larry Crowne and the similarly themed Everything Must Go on a double bill: Like Hanks' character, Will Ferrell's Nick Halsey loses his job and puts his possessions on the front lawn to sell, but the latter film, with its genuinely awkward, painful moments and muted resolution, feels a whole lot more honest. And it's still funny.)

So, Larry, who never went to college (a long stint in the Navy, followed by a long stint at the U-Mart), gets made-over by Talia (Mbatha-Raw), a sunny, spunky fellow student who IMs Larry and who tells him to untuck his polo shirt, restyle his hair, and get a man-bag. Cruising around town with Talia and her scooter crew, Larry starts to see what he has been missing. And he starts to see his Speech 217 (The Art of Informal Remarks) instructress, the doggedly unhappy Ms. Tainot. She's married to a stay-at-home blogger and porn-surfer (Bryan Cranston), and so she spends her downtime downing drinks - until she finally dumps the deadbeat husband and finds herself on the back of Larry's old Yamaha.

Only a good 45 minutes or so of wary misunderstanding and midterms stand between Larry and Mercedes' eternal happiness. Cue Tom Petty and the Electric Light Orchestra.

And be sure to follow Hanks' strategic foreclosure advice.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly