It’s a namby-pamby adjective, a lackluster word, one that conveys nothing more specific or more urgent than a sort of warm, all-approving glow.
“Larry Crowne,” the new comedy that Tom Hanks has directed and co-written (with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s” Nia Vardalos), is … nice.
Too nice, in fact.
This is Hanks’ second try at directing a feature film, his first being 1996’s “That Thing You Do,” in which he had only a supporting role. In “Larry Crowne,” he puts himself front and center as the title character.
“That’s Crowne with an ‘E,’ “ his character keeps telling people.
Larry, a friendly, convivial guy, is a retired Navy cook who has made a second career for himself as a sales clerk at a big box Walmart-ish store. When he’s called in by management, he figures he’s about to be named Employee of the Month for the 10th time.
Instead, he’s fired. His lack of a college degree means he’s not on the management track and, so, bye-bye. Rather than stew over this, Larry enrolls at the local community college and signs up for a course in public speaking taught by Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), an academic with advanced degrees who’s trapped in a lousy job and even lousier marriage. (Her husband, amusingly played by “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston, is a stay-at-home writer who wastes his days surfing on-line porn.)
Larry does well in school. Larry makes new friends. Larry learns to dress better and acquires a gas-sipping scooter. Larry finds a new, part-time job. Larry becomes the teacher’s pet.
All of which is fine and dandy. But, hey, a movie needs a little conflict now and then. “Larry Crowne” is so flaccid -- and so kind to all its characters -- that it feels like it was written with a Q-tip.
And then there are all those gaping holes and undeveloped plot threads. If Larry was in the Navy for 20 years, doesn’t he have a pension? For how long was he married – and when exactly did he get divorced? And how did Mercedes get stuck in this crummy job?
Jokes are set up but there’s no build or payoff. There’s an amusing scene where Mercedes, while driving in her car, sings along loudly to “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from “H.M.S. Pinafore.” Is she a Gilbert and Sullivan fan? Did she once perform in the comic opera? Does she fancy herself a singer? The movie provides no answers and never returns to the topic.
With so little going on, this rom-com depends heavily on the skills and charm of its leads. Fortunately, Hanks and Roberts are both savvy performers, and they deliver here -- at least to the extent that for the 90 or so minutes you’re watching the movie, you’re not too unhappy to be there. But this is, for both of them, an exceedingly minor entry on already impressive resumés.