By Matt Neufeld

For many people, it’s difficult to dislike Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. And that particular notion doesn’t require much in-depth intellectual analysis—they’re talented, good-looking, charismatic, approachable, grounded feel-good actors who shine on camera, have so much presence you can feel the stagehands sweeping up the excess presence off the floor of the set after each take, and throughout most of their careers, they’ve played the good guy (generic use there, don’t write letters), the lovable guy, and for much of the past 15 years or so, they’ve rarely had a real awful flop that would prompt the movie-going public to turn away from the screen and turn to someone else to compensate. They are very likable, and they are very successful.

So, believe me, it’s with a huge sigh of relief to report that “Larry Crowne,” a somewhat equally-likable wisp of a pleasant romantic comedy starring Hanks and Roberts, is not that real awful flop. It’s not great, or a classic, mind you, but it’s not terrible, either. It’s good-to-average, much like the lives of the people populating this everyday story. This quiet little film—that’s said in a positive manner, not a derogatory way–in which Hanks and Roberts try to tone down their out-sized presence and charisma and leading-actor status to play regular, middle-income sad sack everymen (generic use, don’t write letters), would be difficult to dislike not just because of Hanks’ and Roberts’ charm, but because it’s just simply a movie about some very regular people working through the very regular difficulties of very regular life and just trying to get by and survive.

And that notion of dealing with grounded, normal, every-day problems—jobs, family, family dysfunction, relationships, wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, bills, school, romance, careers, houses—prompts the film to actually stand out and be easy to relate to, because it’s not about larger-than-life fantastical superheroes or comic book characters or video game characters running around bloodied, shooting guns and lasers and trying to save the world and the universe once again from creatures and robots and aliens and zombies and pirates and who-knows-whatnot contraptions. “Larry Crowne” is a heartfelt, positive story about real people dealing with real problems in real life. There are no gunshots, no chases, no fistfights, no supernatural or paranormal elements (none, really!), and no magical props that give people mystical powers! And, you know, for once, isn’t that nice?

“Larry Crowne” tells the at-first depressing story of the title character, a fiftysomething pleasantly suburban regular guy who at the outset loses his normal-world superhero status as a faithful, hard-working, dedicated middle manager at some generic big-box retail store. Fired on a Friday for not having a college education and thus being unable to advance up the corporate ladder (one of a few weak plot points, it must be noted, but it’s there for moving the story forward, and not for in-depth economic discussion), Crowne, like many current Americans, suddenly finds himself adrift—jobless, alone, with a towering monster mortgage, no kids, no wife (he’s divorced) and a hill of threatening bills. He has a small support group, most notably and ably led by his trustworthy neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer, also likable), but it’s not enough to pay the bills. He’s a 20-year U.S. Navy retiree, but he’s still swamped with payments that he has difficulty making.

So instead of embarking on a blitz to find some steady employment, which most people would do, to pay the bills, he takes some sketchy advice and enrolls in some classes at a local community college that appears to have been transplanted to suburbia from Mayberry and Our Town. That’s not exactly the best move to make when unemployed, of course, and that’s another weak plot point, but it’s there to move the story along. Now, one would think at first that following someone on a difficult, fruitless and irritating job hunt to gain employment wouldn’t sound like an interesting story or movie, but, actually, with the right writers, that could have been some other good-to-average movie. But the move that Hanks, who directs and who co-write the film with Nia Vardalos, makes here is to have Crowne enroll at the community college to mix it up and interact—and, most importantly, learn, develop, broaden his narrow world view, become exposed to new experiences, and, oh, yes, subsequently fall in love with his gorgeous new speech teacher, Mercedes Tainot, played by Roberts. As it eventually turns out, that’s not a bad story road to take, either.

The small, sneaky gems and charms that arise from “Larry Crowne” lie in watching Hanks and Roberts, along with the very talented supporting cast, try and succeed, to a point, at playing regular shlubs who are not fantastically rich and successful movie stars or worldly heroes of prestige and glory. Crowne dresses in ill-fitting, somewhat out-dated polo shirts tucked in to generic work pants, has a conservative haircut, and mopes along unaware of modern-day trends and customs. He is, rightfully so, scared and shy and a bit bumbling at the new world of jittery, confusing and aging-immune youth that he encounters at the community college. Mercedes, while stunningly beautiful—thankfully, Hanks, who also co-produced, didn’t try to play down or ugly-up Roberts’ natural drop-dead-gorgeous looks—is tired, bored, depressed and fed up with most of her life. While Crowne deals with his impending personal finance doom, Mercedes deals with a lazy husband who surfs computer porn all day long, and declining enrollment in her classes, as well as somewhat apathetic, lazy students with goofy attitudes. Of course, Larry and Mercedes are destined to meet and fall in love. Is that clichéd and predictable? Of course it is, but this is a play-safe romantic comedy designed, in the end, to actually make you feel good when you leave the theater, so it’s a pleasant ride watching these sad-sacks stumble awkwardly through life and work out their respective problems. It’s not eventually depressing—that’s not giving anything away—and it is happy, uplifting and fun, and who can argue with that these days?

But what is it, exactly, that keeps “Larry Crowne” from falling into that Dumpster heap that is just about every other lame Hollywood-produced romantic comedy during the past 80 years? The answer is not just in the actors’ attempts to remain real people, but the story’s intention to stay focused on real people in real places dealing with real problems, and likable characters who talk respectfully and normally to each other, instead of shouting, yelling, screaming and arguing every other line. That, too, is a pleasantry to appreciate. The camera does not jump around as if the director of photography and director are consumed with Red Bull. There are no computer special effects. There are no spirits or ghosts or mystics appearing to talk to people. No one has switched places, switched bodies, appeared from another dimension, or died and come back to life. That, too, is welcome.

There is, though, another important aspect that saves this film: Hanks and Vardalos have populated their sweet, positive small-town world with a bevy of likable folks played by likable character actors, and they have them, in the best tradition of ensemble films, interact with each other in their own quirky, unique ways, as if to say, here’s some people who Larry Crowne and Mercedes Tainot can connect to, rely on and count on for support. First among these players is the great George Takei, Sulu from the original “Star Trek” television show and films, who gallantly, completely and hilariously steals the film out from everyone else. To his credit, Takei, playing a strict old-fashioned economics professor teaching a course that Crowne takes at the community college, employs that great stoic voice, that steely, cold-eyed presence and that sneaky, inspired sense of humor to great purpose, simply providing some of the movie’s best laughs. It’s the type of performance that, while watching the film, you start to wonder when Takei will appear next, and when he does, you’re riveted. Why Hollywood doesn’t employ him more is yet another Hollywood casting mystery.

Similarly, Cedric the Entertainer’s Larmar turns out to be the wise old neighborhood sage with reliable common-sense advice whose support for Crowne is heartening. Hanks and Vardalos humorously also have Lamar be a perpetual yard-sale entrepreneur, holding massive yard sales in his front yard every day and lording over his sales while smoking a pipe that blows soap bubbles. Corny? Yes, it is. The gaggle of late-teen and early-twentysomething college students Crowne meets and somewhat too quickly befriends (a weak plot point, but…) are entirely endearing, existing in that magical college-age-world of part-child, part-young-adult, complete with all that goes along with that time. Sweetly, and cutely, they take Crowne under their wing, invite him into their world, help him out, and get him back on track. These interactions between Crowne and the students are a bit forced at times and can teeter on the corny—they ride around on scooters and frequent yard sales and thrift shops—but guess what, so what. At least they’re not shooting at each other and throwing things at each other, and that’s a pleasant surprise. Wilmer Valderrama, as the watchful boyfriend of the female student who platonically befriends Crowne, is funny, and Crowne’s classmates are funny and watchable. Bryan Cranston, in normal Cranston funny mode as Mercedes’ husband; and veteran Pam Grier, as Mercedes’ grounded office-mate and best friend, also offer solid supporting performances.

The Everytown locations, sets, props and neighborhoods are well-handled by the props, set design and production design departments. College classrooms actually look like college classrooms, middle-class homes look like middle-class homes, apartments look like apartments, and mom-and-pop neighborhood diners look like neighborhood diners. Everything is kept grounded and normal, and that’s a pleasant surprise, too.

Hanks and Vardalos, who along with Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson previously worked together on the monster hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in 2002, could be accused of dropping by the same well for the same drink again. Point noted. And some weak plot points and some hurried exposition and occasional too-cute scenes tend to prompt a possible breakdown of a wobbly story foundation. But when you have a group of characters this likable just trying to get by in life, and just trying to find some solace with real, normal people, and just trying to maybe even find love and hope and connection along the way, well, in the end, it’s just plain difficult to dislike some things, and some people.

Larry Crowne (99 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual content.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.