Few mountains in moviedom are harder to climb than the one "Larry Crowne" has just tried to scale. Told in the unfashionable genre of the dramatic comedy, Tom Hanks' tale of midlife redemption via community-college enrollment and a gang of affable scooter-riders was never destined to become a monster hit. That it didn't exactly bowl over critics ("offbeat" was the nicest word some could find for it) ensured the film was something far less than that: Over this four-day holiday weekend, the Hanks-Julia Roberts collaboration barely mustered $15 million.
But no matter how low the bar, there are conclusions to draw from the movie's failure. "Larry Crowne," after all, had two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood history. Over the past quarter-century, Hanks and Roberts have accounted for nearly two dozen movies that grossed at least $100 million and defined the culture to boot, from "Forrest Gump" to "Erin Brockovich," "Cast Away" to "Pretty Woman." And yet here they were, together, struggling to out-open "Hall Pass" and "Jumping the Broom."
Central to the film's dismal results is how its themes play to a demographic that, as my colleague John Horn points out, doesn't fuel big opening weekends. (Nearly three-quarters of the film's audience this weekend was above the age of 50, according to Universal Pictures, which released the movie.)
Maybe more important, as Hollywood pundits have been noting for some time, stars exert a lot less influence over moviegoers than they once did. Unless actors are inhabiting a signature role or character, their presence isn't enough to lure us to theaters. We'll pay to watch Matt Damon as a globetrotting Jason Bourne but not as a tortured San Francisco clairvoyant; Johnny Depp compels us as a swashbuckling Jack Sparrow but not as an early-20th century gangster.
That rule would certainly seem to apply to "Crowne." As a laid-off retail clerk faced with home foreclosure, Hanks (who also directed and co-wrote the movie) wasn't anywhere close to what has been his signature part in the past few years -- the conspiracy-solving professor Robert Langdon, a character that gave him his only recent live-action hits. (Another recent movie, "Charlie Wilson's War," was similarly a world away from that character; it also underperformed.) And as an embittered, semi-alcoholic professor, Roberts (who also costarred in "Wilson's War") was herself removed from one of her trademark America's Sweetheart roles.
But it's hard not to wonder if something else is at work with Hanks, something more specific than just the issue of waning star power.
The 54-year-old initially became a box-office draw because he was a charming if innocuous presence, the regular guy we could all identify with. But when you look at America's favorite movies circa 2011, they're populated with very different, and decidedly less Everyman, types: the kooky and stonerish ("The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis); the swashbuckling and sometimes morally ambiguous ("Pirates of the Caribbean's" Depp); and, most commonly lately, the Adonis-like and reticent ("Thor's" Chris Hemsworth).
Even the alleged heir to Hanks' nice-guy throne, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" star Shia LaBeouf, is more intense and jittery than Hanks ever was. Genial likability -- the on-screen demeanor Hanks made famous -- isn't common among today's film protagonists. American leading men do many things these days. Guy-next-door is rarely one of them.
Taking a closer look at Hanks' work, a more particular pattern emerges. The actor has historically played an ordinary guy, but in his biggest hits he's almost always thrust into circumstances that are so extraordinary they're almost absurd.
He has drifted to sleep a child and woken up a man; gone unwittingly from mentally challenged savant to phenomenally rich folk hero; boarded a plane and gotten marooned for several years on a desert island; boarded a plane and gotten marooned for several years in an airport; walked down a city street and fallen in love with a fish. The biggest lesson of the Tom Hanks canon might be: "If you look like a regular guy and act like a gentleman, you just might have the most adventurous life humankind has ever known."
Seen through this lens, "Larry Crowne's" storyline, about a normal dude with normal problems (he struggles to find love and pay the bills), is a zeitgeist misfire on several levels. It stars a man whose primary asset we no longer favor, and places him in banal situations we don't enjoy seeing him in.
Hanks will next test his appeal in several high-profile films, including the post-Sept. 11 magical-realism of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," the time-bending historical epic "Cloud Atlas" and the seafaring adventure "Captain Phillips," about a workaday cargo-ship captain whose vessel is commandeered by Somali pirates.
It's an open question whether Hanks will come across as his usual likable self in these movies. But judging by the source material, the settings at least will revert to his typical mermaid-loving, JFK-amusing, volleyball-addressing outlandishness. Which maybe -- but only maybe -- will make him a box-office draw again.
Photo: Tom Hanks in "Larry Crowne." Credit: Universal Pictures