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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "Larry Crowne"

For a film with so many feeble elements, this adult classroom-conversion serio-comedy made me laugh, and fairly often. That it had any chance at all is thanks to the two pros who headed it up, considering which it earns a grade somewhere between a C+ and a B-.

Larry (Tom Hanks), the title character, lands up in the same class with Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) as a result of too much success at bix-box company Umart. He gets canned not for insubordination, not for absences and not for being a boob. He get canned because he got caught between a rock and a hard place on the retail employment continuum.

Knocking down the honors of "employee of the month" time after time with his super work ethic, having reached the pay zenith of his current position, he'd be ready to move up to middle management if only he had a college degree. Unfortunately, the company's policy requires such a person to pack up and go.

So what's this obnoxiously optimistic person going to do at the unemployment lines? Will he be as much of a model of aspirational efficiency there as he was on the retail aisles where he's happy to pick up trash whenever it's spotted within his eye-line. Some people might call this anal-retentive. This is a worker who acts as though every day is his first, with all the pride of having landed the job for such a sterling employer. His qualities are those any company would want in their personnel. There must be a sub-text about union vs non-union in here somewhere, but that's not where we're going. Maybe in an earlier draft.

Larry's organized mind guides him through the visicitudes and indignities of trying to find work, until he intelligently decides that retraining is called for in the new job market. He enrolls at the local college and meets a counseler who clues him into a course that could be his ticket to success.

Bingo. He becomes the senior student in Mercedes Tainot's (Julia Roberts) class in public speaking, a lady roughly his age. Obviously, the casting tells us that a) the counselor couldn't be more spot on about success if he had invented the word, and b) these two are destined for each other ala any other romantic comedy.

Never mind the barrier of him being her "maturest" student. Let Hanks take care of convincing her (and us) that he's the kind of mellow guy who can break through her crisp firewalls, not the least of which is the discontent at home. Her husband is a you-know-what.

Writers Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos (the syrupy "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") find plenty of side plots with which to amuse, the primary one being his adoption by Ms Alvarez (Roxana Ortega, "Franklin & Bash," TV), a cutie who, for an instant, I thought was Jessica Alba. This honey, who gets an immediate line on where Larry is coming from and what his social needs are, lines him up with her crew of scooter birds.

A major running gag is the attention the young sexpot lavishes upon her grandfatherly Larry as her boyfriend (Alex Quijano) looks on with a seething sense of misunderstanding. The comedy here is all Quijano's, and he does a splendid job with his nuances of expression. More questionable is how Hanks & Co. try to establish smart street creds for the two-wheeler gang. This is something between a golf cart and a Tesla Roadster.

Leave it to Hanks, as director, to get plenty out of his actors. And, leave it to Hanks and Vardalos to knock out a fairly solid script that gives them plenty to work with at the level they're trying for. But, it doesn't work for everyone and my failure detector suggests it has a lot to do with Roberts' character.

This sullen lady is so down that she brings the enterprise almost to its knees. She comes through with the kind of lessons that have their intended effect: to inspire the trouble youth who come to her class. But, in between, her personality sinks into a morose funk from which there's no salvation. it's an emotional blood bath. You know the happy and sad masks representing drama? Well, she's both, and you just see enough glimpses of the happy face to know there's some hope out there as she lets the hair down for a moment. But, as far as chemistry goes, that's in another classroom. What there is seems more directed than letting nature take its course.

Co-writer Vardalos takes a very funny role here, the voice of the Map Genie, Ms. Tainot's GPS car unit. Much amusement derives.

But, now I get to the cornball nature of the amusement. While it has a requisite amount of young college sophs or people who could pass for them, the appeal is to the breed that that can identify with scooters rather than hogs. In other words, in this "Transformers" epoch, pretty close to nada. Yes, they catch on that something's going on between teach and the old guy but, well, let's just say no fire may be expected to rage within the youthful breasts in the audience.

Rita Wilson, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Pam Grier and grim-faced George Takei contribute good work to the overall curriculum.

Let's leave it that it's an adult comedy of adult issues and angst. It's better written than Vardalos' previous efforts but with her overdose of fantasy firmly intact. Even the photography has a pastel quality (though that's a good thing!). At least she didn't put herself on Larry's ride. It's enough that the fuel in the tank is low test at scooter speed.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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