Picture Tom Hanks. Got it? OK, now picture a guy whom Julia Roberts would find so overwhelmingly yummy that she would not only kiss him with the enthusiasm of a golden retriever, but even try to jump up and wrap her legs around his waist. Now, very slowly, try to merge those two images.
If you can't do it, don't feel bad. Almost no one can come up with a result they find plausible. Almost no one but Tom Hanks.
No doubt about it, Hanks has achieved more than many another Hollywood name. He has delighted us in movies like Big (1988) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), astounded us in Cast Away (2000) and Apollo 13 (1995), and brought history majestically to life in Forrest Gump (1994). With so much going for him, it's a little embarrassing that, for his second directorial effort (the first was 1996's charming That Thing You Do), he has handed himself such a bouquet of vanity.
Everyone in this story admires Hank's character, Larry Crowne. Others say, "You're a great student," "You have a grasp of my concepts like few others," "You're way cooler than you look," and Julia Roberts hands him her heart, and all adjacent regions, on a platter. Larry is just a modest, honest, hard-working guy, who is somehow surrounded by a whirl of admiration. Other characters look at him and they get a kind of glow. When you're both director and screenwriter (writing credits shared with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), you can do that.
When the story opens, Larry is a happy employee of U-Mart, a big box discount store. But instead of the 9th "Employee of the Month" award he was expecting, Larry gets downsized; he isn't eligible for the advancement track because he never attended college. (After high school, he spent 20 years as a Navy cook.) Larry seeks a remedy at the local community college, where he signs up for courses in economics, writing, and "The Art of Informal Remarks," the latter in hopes of presenting himself more effectively to employers. On his first day he finds the other desks occupied by classmates—the cast chosen with exquisite care by the filmmakers to represent an ethnic spectrum (as were the faculty, his neighbors, fellow restaurant patrons, yard sale customers, and every other group setting he encounters).
However, relief arrives in the form of Mercedes Tainot, the "Informal Remarks" teacher, who is sarcastic, pessimistic, and regularly tipsy. Roberts does a great job with this role. In the past, the part would have been written for a man, a cynical, world-weary professor, perhaps, who is reawakened to life by the charms of an innocent girl. The script has sex-changed that professor adroitly. Roberts' Tainot ponders the politics of Shakespeare and Shaw, and sings along with Gilbert and Sullivan in her car; she scrawls the word "Care" on the blackboard and tells the students they will learn to do so in her class, but it's clear she gave up caring long ago. Her remarks range from ironic to sarcastic, and she delivers them in a flat, deliberate tone. While on the back of Larry's scooter she observes, "We're going so slow a cat could knock us over."