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Back to school

Downsized during hard times, Tom Hanks displays his typical charm as ‘Larry Crowne’

David Germain I Associated Press

Let’s say in some alternate reality, Tom Hanks winds up working at a Wal-Mart-style retail chain.

Here’s how his day goes: He bounds out of his car with a beaming grin, stooping to pick up stray trash in the parking lot. From afar, he notices a breakable item in danger of falling and strides over to nudge it back to safety on the shelf.

Amid giddily greeting customers, he rallies co-workers into a laughing bucket brigade to restock items, turning what should be a dreary job into a game to be savored.

That’s our first glimpse of the title character Hanks plays in “Larry Crowne,” which opens in theaters today and reunites him with his “Charlie Wilson’s War” co-star Julia Roberts.

It’s a timely tale about a man who makes the best of his lot, even when he’s downsized out of a job during these hard times and must head back to school to build a new future.

It’s all about attitude, says Hanks – getting up each day with the thought that there’s action to be had and a party to be joined.

Hanks, 54, the movie’s star, director, producer and co-writer, thinks that’s how he’d approach life if he were in Larry’s place rather than one of the biggest stars in the world.

“I’d be the gang leader of the common break area. I’d be the guy organizing the parties, stuff like that. Absolutely,” he says.

“The concept of putting on a show begins as soon as you wake up in the day. And Larry, the theater of his life starts when he goes through those doors, and it’s like, ‘I’m a team leader, and I’m wearing the red Polo (the store employees’ uniform).’

“When Larry picks up trash in the parking lot, that’s the first thing he does, because you’ve got to have a little pride. And I’m a trash picker-upper. What can I tell you?”

A former Navy cook who never went to college, Hanks’ Larry is a model worker at U-Mart, the retailer where he’s a perpetual employee of the month.

Fifty-something, divorced, with a house worth less than he owes on it, Larry tumbles into an abyss familiar to millions after management lets him go. He’s forced to downsize his life, selling things off, struggling to resolve his mortgage mess, and switching over from a gas-guzzling SUV to a fuel-sipping scooter.

He lands part-time work at a diner while taking classes at a community college as he seeks to boost his employment prospects. Along the way, he fashions a new life for himself, making friends with a circle of oddball classmates and finding romance with his boozy, disillusioned public-speaking teacher (Roberts).

That’s a rosy outcome for a middle-aged back-to-schooler, but “Larry Crowne” co-writer Nia Vardalos says it’s the outlook Hanks brings to life.

“This is a very Tom Hanks movie. This is really how the world should work,” Vardalos says of Hanks, who was a producer on her unexpected romantic blockbuster “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” another story of boundless optimism.

“A man should get to go to school and get a second chance and get to bag Julia Roberts, in a world according to Tom Hanks.”

Larry’s situation certainly is not one that Hanks has to worry about. He started out at community college himself – “because of lack of funds and drive and wherewithal,” he says – but the two-time Academy Award winner has been rich and famous for most of his adult life.

Yet he’s built a career as an Everyman who inhabits roles with absolute authenticity, whether it’s a lawyer dying of AIDS in “Philadelphia,” a wry, war-weary soldier in “Saving Private Ryan,” a taciturn hitman in “Road to Perdition” or a Federal Express worker stranded alone on an island in “Cast Away.”

Sliding into the skin of a workaday guy down on his luck is just another day at the office for Hanks.

“Granted, yes, I am a well-known, cheesehead celebrity that has been in front of the cameras for a while, so people do know me,” he says. “But part of it is definitely remembering what it was like to be terrified. …

“It’s not hard for anyone to empathize, I don’t think, with a guy who walks into work one day thinking everything is hunky-dory and then finding out, ‘Sorry, no hard feelings, but you’re fired.’ I think that’s part of the human condition that transcends more than just your station in life.”

Taraji P. Henson, who co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer as Larry’s supportive neighbors, says she expects audiences will see Hanks’ character as a real guy fallen on hard times, rather than a superstar slumming in a blue-collar role.

“Sometimes, when you’re a big star like that, it’s hard for people to remove the star from the character,” Henson says. “But there’s something about him that just feels so real, where you go, ‘Hey, I know that guy.’

“The way he comes across, you’re able to separate Tom Hanks from the character, so you see a real person instead of the star.”

Hanks has written, produced and directed for television with such miniseries as “Band of Brothers” and “From the Earth to the Moon.”

“Larry Crowne” is only his second time writing and directing for the big screen, after 1996’s “That Thing You Do!”

The idea came to him long before our current economic mess, though it gained resonance as Hanks shaped the story and Larry’s plight began to reflect what was happening to millions of real people.

Larry’s eager approach to classes and the easy, hopeful way he glides into his new routine have their roots in Hanks’ own school days.

“I loved going to school, which is the antithesis of a lot of people,” he says. “I loved junior high, I loved high school, because there was action there. I never cut a single class of any school I ever went to, because I couldn’t imagine that something better was going on somewhere else as opposed to here. …

“I loved the idea of entering the boundary of that school, in through that cyclone fence, and your job is to make it peppy until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. At least, I always thought that was my job.”

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