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Laid off: A love story; Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts co-star in romantic comedy about a man who loses his job, goes back to school and falls in love with his teacher

Yes, yes, I know. All that anyone really needs to know before buying a ticket to "Larry Crowne" is that it's a Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts romantic comedy and that Hanks directed and co-wrote it.

But there's a story to it, too. Honest.

Like so: Larry works at U-Mart, a big box retail emporium a la Target or Wal-Mart. He's the perfect employee: He arrives before everyone else in the morning and picks up the trash in the parking lot. He straightens up the stock on the shelves without being asked.

He's been employee of the month eight times, but he's never received a promotion. Not once. They tell him it's because he never went to college, but that's because he spent 20 years as a cook in the Navy.

He is nevertheless the kind of employee smart businesses pray will walk through the door -- personable, completely capable and the living embodiment of conscientiousness.

But he's hit what is euphemistically known in the world as a "bad patch" in life -- an expensive divorce has left him with a house that's underwater on its mortgage (i.e., not nearly worth the $392,000 he owes the bank).

Then his bad patch turns into a pothole, which morphs into a sinkhole. His smug, superior bosses at U-Mart tell him he's been "downsized."

Jobs aren't exactly plentiful. So Larry goes to college -- not "back" to college, but for the first time as a middle-aged man who still tucks his polo shirt into his pants. He wants to learn things and have some of the life he never had.

So he takes two courses: Economics 1 -- or Econ Prime -- taught by the venerably creepy George Takei of "Star Trek," and a speech course recommended by the dean of students, another guy who's been in the service and is happy to look out for his own.

That course is taught by Julia Roberts as a professor named Mercedes Tainot. And since Tom Hanks plays Larry, that's why there's a movie and why you're sitting in a movie theater waiting to see a commodity as predictably likable as anything in a movie house.

Here's Mercedes' story: She drinks too many Margaritas at night because her author husband spends all day surfing large-breasted porn sites while claiming to be blogging (all the while sneering at his wife teaching at "Vassar in the valley" and calling her "boozilla"). She begins her teaching days, then, with Advil and coffee. On those days she isn't hungover, she sometimes sings along with "Madame Butterfly" in the car.

Which is all very nice, of course, but, as I said, all you needed to know is that she's played by Julia Roberts.

And she's about to meet Tom Hanks.

And the two bankable best friends of the American movie audience are about to have a movie together -- one that Hanks co-wrote and directed (just as he did before -- without appearing in it -- with "That Thing You Do").

The movie is funny enough. And heartwarming enough. And you couldn't ask for more agreeable people to spend 90 minutes with.

But the time has come to tell a few tales out of school.

1. It's awfully sitcommy, you know? (See "Community" for TV's take on some of this.)

2. Maybe, just maybe, Hanks is a bit too nice a guy sometimes to give the movie everything it needs.

There are, in fact, at least three times when we'd all have been better off with a nastier guy at the helm:

A) When one of Larry's classmates in Roberts' class -- a young African American -- demonstrates how dorky white guys look when they dance. It's hilarious, and it's exactly the breakout comedy set piece the movie needs at that moment, but it ends just as quickly as it begins.

B) When Larry is downsized, the audience yearns for more to be made of the hypocritical insensitivity of those doing it, but Hanks holds back most of the acid.

C) When one of those bosses shows up again later, the audience yearns for some sting to the scene, but Hanks, again, just can't do it. He just won't administer some sharp comic bite for its own not-so-sweet sake.

He really may be one of the nicest guys in the world -- or, at least, Hollywood's corner of it.

His co-scriptwriter here is Nia Vardalos, whose massively successful film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" Hanks produced. If only his and Roberts' old employer Nora Ephron had given this script a little pass (then again, maybe she did, giving it whatever acid it has).

It's very much a family affair. Hanks' wife, Rita Wilson, for instance, plays the bank mortgage officer.

The rest of the cast has the savvy eccentricity you might expect of an actor/director who's nothing if not smart about choosing whom to work with: Pam Grier as Roberts' faculty colleague, Cedric the Entertainer as Larry's next-door neighbor, the man with the perpetual garage sale, Bryan Cranston as Roberts' sneering, porn-surfing husband.

In addition, there's a nice, potentially star-making performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a beautiful young student who more or less adopts Larry and cleans up his act so that he's Julia-ready.

Just when I was about to throw up my hands in exasperation at how hopelessly nice Hanks can be, Larry has a misty-eyed classroom speech about what he learned during his time in the Navy and you realize there is a good reason we have Tom Hanks in our moviemaking world.

Others, after all, can do plenty of biting.



Larry Crowne

3 stars (out of 4)

Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Cedric the Entertainer and Pam Grier in Hanks' romantic comedy about a downsized middle-aged worker who goes to college and falls in love with an instructor.

Rated PG-13 for language and sexual references, opening Friday in area theaters.

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