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By Michael Calleri

OK, we get it, Julia. You've got a smile that dazzles. But even the toothiest of grins can't overcome weak material, and beam though you do, Miss Roberts, nothing can elevate your new movie "Larry Crowne" beyond being mildly amusing.

The lady being referenced, Julia Roberts, is considered the queen of the American box office, but if her recent results are taken into consideration, the queen is losing her luster. Her two previous pictures were lackluster efforts. "Duplicity" grossed a very weak $40 million in North America. "Eat Pray Love" managed to hit $80 million, but never broke through the magic $100 million ceiling.

Roberts' latest, "Larry Crowne," is going to wither on the vine. Not all of the blame will rest on her prodigious shoulders. In fact, there's a lot of blame to go around for the feature's failure. The film is nice, but not nice enough to warrant a recommendation. And yes, a movie can be nice and be worth seeing. But there had better be some substance to what happens.

The character of Larry Crowne is played by Tom Hanks, who also co-wrote, produced and directed the picture. This is called spreading yourself too thin.

Crowne is a 20-year Navy veteran -- a cook -- who works in management for one of those oversized, big-box stores in Los Angeles. He's a very popular employee, an excellent worker (a multiple Employee of The Month), and just might be one of the sweetest people on the planet.

The problem is that Crowne can't advance any higher in the chain because he doesn't have a college degree. So, he's fired. Right off the bat, this makes no sense, and I doubt he could actually be fired. He would certainly remain in his position, never going further than the job he has, a job that makes him happy.

But fired he is. He is divorced, although his marriage and wife are an unexplained element. He has a steep mortgage on his house and neighbors who love him. They don't want him to move. His cluttered house includes a vinyl record collection on which we never really get a fix.

Larry decides to go to college for the first time in his life. It seems that he thinks this will help him get a new job, but it's a community college. I'm pretty sure he would have a nice Navy pension to help him, but that's also unexplained, and we have to work with what the screenwriters give us.

It's at the college that the movie goes haywire. Crowne hooks up with a group of students in their late teens, which occasionally borders on being creepy because the tease is that a lovely young lady is his new best friend.

She will see him in his underwear.

This group of kids motor about L.A. on Mopeds, sort of like a motorcycle gang for people with limited funds. The film uses the awful music-video device of having the motor scooter group putter around city streets while a lame song plays on the soundtrack. This is tedious filler.

One of the teachers at the school is Mercedes, played by Roberts, and I don't have to whack you over the head for you to know that in this harmless romantic comedy, Hanks and Roberts feel a spark. She teaches public speaking and a course called "Shakespeare the Politician." Her husband is a creep, and she drinks a little more than she should because of this.

Hanks will eventually give her a spin on his motor scooter, and they will giggle and smooch. She is a little bit concerned about the "relationship" that Crowne has with the pretty coed. Also concerned is the young gal's boyfriend, played by the uninteresting Wilmer Valderrama, who looks as if he's just relieved to be working.

An odd duck of an economics professor is played by George Takei, and his character seems to be in a different movie altogether. Cedric The Entertainer isn't all that entertaining as Crowne's neighbor, a lottery winner who holds a permanent garage sale on his front lawn. Cedric comes across like television's junk dealer Fred Sanford, and it's an unfortunate stereotype.

Hanks directs ably, but without emphasizing much of anything. "Larry Crowne" is bland, and it doesn't really utilize the contemporary economic straits it seems to want to examine.

He co-wrote the weak screenplay with Nia Vardalos, whose "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was produced by Hanks' wife, Rita Wilson, who is also in "Larry Crowne" as a bank executive.

The film lacks bite. It could have been a nifty satire, but Hanks and his team go from point A to point B and beyond with an unwillingness to stir the audience.

If there's anyone who stands out in "Larry Crowne," it's a 30-year-old actor named Rami Malek, who, as dippy student Steve Dibiasi, brings an edge and a personality to the goings-on. He's a relative newcomer to movies, and he's an actor to watch.

"Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" is the insanely loud and jumbled third installment in the series. Part One is fun and Part Two is a mess. Director Michael Bay seems to think that lunacy is a genre. It isn't. When American astronauts went to the moon ages ago, it was because a space alien had landed on it. The mission was to gather information.

In the present, Shia LaBeouf returns as a clerk, and he's angrier than ever. Military guy Josh Duhamel also returns. Francis McDormand is a bureaucratic government sadist. As for the mechanical toys, the Autobots learn of a Cybertronian spacecraft hidden on the Moon, and race against the Decepticons to find and discover its secrets.

You can see this exercise in overkill in 3-D, but that's an unnecessary expense. Robotic madness ensues, and I feel sorry for parents forced to take kids to this utterly empty waste of time.

Buck" is a documentary about Buck Brannaman, a real-life horse whisperer who worked with director and star Robert Redford in his 1998 movie about a horse whisperer. The film is interesting and amiable. Horse lovers should have a field day while watching it.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 5, 2011