Old-school romance

TEACHER'S PET: Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
TEACHER'S PET: Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks has fun in slippers-comfortable throwback.

Larry Crowne, M, 99 minutes, two and a half stars

Oranges and Sunshine, M, 105 minutes, three stars

Tom Hanks is permitted to write, direct, star, and snog Julia Roberts, suggesting Larry Crowne was much more fun for him than it was for anyone else. There is, at least, the consolation Hanks hasn't emulated Little Britain's Dennis Waterman, and written da theme toon, sung da theme toon, but I bet he picked it because it's that typical jaunty 1980s American dad rock you'd imagine he'd hum tunelessly along to in his SUV, and it comes complete – oh, the horror – with a comedy montage sequence.

Given it couldn't start any worse, Larry Crowne does get better. But there's a lot of these awkward shorthands in the film, as Hanks hurries through his thin plot – co-authored by My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos – to the punch-you-in-the-nose obvious romantic ending.

Hanks plays the titular hero, a Navy veteran and honest grafter at a thinly-disguised Walmart, laid off because his lack of a college degree limits his chances of promotion. After a 30-second mid-life crisis, he enrols in community college, where his tutor happens to be, whaddayaknow, an unhappily-married Ms Roberts. You could cut to the closing credits right now.

When Hanks arrives at college (being fair, he doesn't do the really obvious stuff about the cool kids laughing at the square oldster) by virtue of riding a scooter, he immediately lucks into instant friendship with the cool set. Similarly, Roberts ditches her husband (played with typical verve by Bryan Cranston) early one evening and takes up with Hanks later that night.

There are some nice touches, like Hanks' autocratic economics tutor and Roberts' hard-drinking nihilist isn't bad either, but Hanks himself is hammy and there's a fair dash of Forrest Gump in there. The studio reported that 71% of the opening weekend crowd in America were aged over 50; as one US reviewer noted, the target for Larry Crowne is probably Larry himself. For this is something of a throwback: an amiable, easy-viewing old-fashioned star vehicle that could easily have been made two decades ago.

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Meanwhile the mass deportation, over two decades, of British children to uncertain futures in Australia is explored in Oranges and Sunshine. Some were orphaned, some not, all were promised a joyous life of "oranges and sunshine" with new adoptive families but many ending as virtual slave labour in inhospitable surroundings or worse, the victims of sexual abuse by priests. As a story, it's powerful, enraging and upsetting, and forced official apologies from both governments just last year.

So without sounding callous, first-time director Jim Loach had every necessary ingredient to produce a compelling, deeply memorable and important film but despite the source material and his obvious passion, falls short. Loach petitioned Margaret Humphreys, the heroic British social worker who uncovered the scandal, then tirelessly campaigned to reunite these lost children with their history and identity, to produce a cinematic version of her memoir, Empty Cradles.

On this evidence, Loach is not a director in the same league as his father Ken; there's a lot of time wasted on needless early panning shots of city skylines, and the pace thereafter is uneven and disjointed. The usually-accomplished Emily Watson gives a curiously emotionless performance as Humphreys.

Finally, in the last half-hour, the film is rescued by a sub-plot of moving, powerful drama when its most engaging and complex character, abuse victim Len – dextrously played by Wenham – faces down his horrific past at a bleak Marist boy's home.

Sunday Star Times