Once upon a time, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts owned the box office. It was a magical time– often referred to as ‘the 90s’. As brightly as both Hanks and Roberts’ stars still shine, though, neither has opened a movie on the coveted 4th of July weekend in more than 15 years.

Here we are in 2011, and Hanks and Roberts’ Larry Crowne is debuting July 1. Not because it’s a big-time, sure-fire blockbuster. Not because it’s loaded with action, suspense, and special effects. No, Larry Crowne is opening on the July 4th weekend precisely because it’s none of those things. It’s the perfect anti-Transformers. And though it’s far from perfect itself, it’s a welcome change of pace during these big-bang-boom summer months.

Larry Crowne (which Hanks also directed and co-wrote) is the story of a 50-something guy who spends his days flaired to the nines as a sales associate at U-Mart. He’s friends with all his co-workers, he cares about the customers, and he even goes out of his way to pick up other folks’ litter as he walks through the parking lot. He’s so good that he’s won Employee of the Month nine times.

So of course it only follows that he gets laid off. Turns out Larry never attended college, and U-Mart policy states that only college grads will be considered for management. Since Larry’s dead weight, he’s dropped quicker than a rollback price. Unemployed, divorced, and unable to find a job ‘in today’s economy’, Larry finds himself at East Valley Community College (Go Beavers!) where he can hopefully get his life back on track. He trades in his gas-guzzler for a scooter, enrolls in “The Art of Informal Remarks”, and begins his path to enlightenment.

His teacher, Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), is cut from almost the same cloth, it seems, as Cameron Diaz’ Elizabeth in the recent Bad Teacher. Though not as callous and rude as Elizabeth, Mercedes is first seen nursing a hangover and whining about having to teach a class at 8 a.m. Turns out, though, all she needs is the right group of students to shake her out of her funk. And really, what teacher wouldn’t enjoy having Hanks as a student?

The slice-of-life comedy has plenty of fun along the way– Larry is adopted by a comically-friendly scooter gang, gets a part-time job at a neighborhood diner, and slowly starts getting his life back on track. And, oh yes, he also starts getting hot for teacher. Speaking of whom, Ms. Tainot has issues of her own, including a lackluster husband (the excellent Bryan Cranston) who’s content to while away the hours ogling Internet porn.

The pace of Larry Crowne can easily be compared to the steady pace of Crowne’s scooter. There’s no real conflict here– Larry’s lack of employment never really reaches panic level, and it takes no time at all for him to charm Ms. Tainot. Obviously he’s the best student in the class, and of course he and she get together. And of course (spoiler alert, but not really) everything wraps up with a pretty little bow. The real fun of the movie is in seeing Hanks and Roberts shine as only they can.

For his ‘everyman’ reputation, Hanks has rarely played a character as ‘normal’ as Crowne. He’s friendly, happy, and breezes through life with a whistle and a wink. And Roberts, rebounding nicely from the snoozefest Eat Pray Love, has recaptured some of the magic that first propelled her to superstardom all those years ago.

Hanks’ direction is spot-on throughout. It’s never distracting but easily pulls you in. And though there’s nothing here that’s groundbreaking, the script (co-written by My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘s Nia Vardalos) is better than most of what we’ve seen since it started getting hot outside.

Larry Crowne isn’t in 3D, doesn’t have a single special effects shot (as near as I could tell), and nothing blows up. There are no robots, no wizards, and no superheroes.

If Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a category 5 hurricane, Larry Crowne is a cool breeze on a hot summer day. And sometimes that’s just fine.

3.5/5 stars