Here's a pop quiz that Universal would probably like moviegoers to take: What did you know about 'Larry Crowne,' besides the fact that it stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts? Anything? Why wasn't their combined star power enough to get you to go see it when it opened this past weekend? What else would it have taken to persuade you to go see it?
The romantic comedy, which Hanks also directed and co-wrote, cost a reported $30 million to make but earned just $13 million in its first three days of release, debuting in fourth place on the box office chart. That's one of the weakest openings ever for a film starring either of these two actors, both longtime box office champs.
There will be a lot of handwringing, both at Universal and among movie pundits, worrying that 'Larry Crowne' is a sign that Hanks' and Roberts' star power is on the wane, that maybe they're both getting too old. (He's 54, she's 43.) But both of those concerns are misplaced. Yes, there is a star power drain, but it affects all of Hollywood, not just Hanks and Roberts. The truth is, star power alone isn't enough to sell a movie anymore, particularly one as offbeat as 'Larry Crowne.'
It would be easy to assume that age is the issue, especially since studio polling found that 81 percent of 'Larry Crowne' ticketbuyers were 35 and older. Hollywood assumes that people over 35 have all but given up on going to the movies, that movies that appeal to older audiences are therefore box office poison, and that older actors are poison as well because they appeal only to older audiences. None of these assumptions is necessarily true. Meryl Streep is a reliable box office draw in her 60s. Sean Connery sold tickets into his 70s, and Clint Eastwood has as well. Regardless of age, the right star in the right vehicle will put moviegoers in seats.
But was 'Larry Crowne' the right vehicle for Hanks and Roberts? You'd think so; Hanks co-wrote the script and directed it himself, and he could have cast any age-appropriate actress he wanted in the part that went to Roberts, so you'd think he knew what he was doing. And in fact, both performers did a good job in their roles.
And yet, 'Larry Crowne' is not a typical Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts movie, which is to say, it's not a sprawling Hollywood spectacle, filled with grand gestures or big belly laughs, featuring characters with ambitious dreams, intense passions, and characters who grow and change during extraordinary life journeys that take them from point A to point Z. Those are the kind of movies that sell lots of tickets to people who expect Hanks to play his usual resourceful adventurer (see 'Apollo 13,' 'Cast Away,' 'The Da Vinci Code,' even the 'Toy Story' movies) or who expect Roberts to play her usual feisty lioness (see 'Eat Pray Love,' 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Runaway Bride,' or 'Notting Hill').
'Larry Crowne' has none of that. It's about a middle-aged man who loses his job but finds fulfillment as a short-order cook and community college student. It's about a burned-out teacher who learns once again how to find modest happiness in her job, thanks to the guileless enthusiasm of that middle-aged student. And it's about how how both of those people take tentative steps toward a casual, no-big-deal romance. It's not a big-laugh comedy; rather, it's full of wry little moments and small chuckles. The characters don't journey from A to Z; A to C is more like it.
There's a word for movies like this, for small-scale character studies about ordinary people living quiet lives: indie films.
Imagine if 'Larry Crowne' had been made for $5 or $10 million instead of $30 million; if it had starred Greg Kinnear and Patricia Clarkson instead of Hanks and Roberts; if it had premiered at Sundance, then opened in a handful of theaters before gradually expanding to 800 or 900 screens over the course of the summer. It would have been hailed as the next 'Little Miss Sunshine' or 'The Kids Are All Right,' and it would have been praised as a lavish success if it had taken in $20 million over its entire run. But because it was a big studio film that starred two of the most famous and expensive actors on the planet, it looks like a disappointment.
Star power is not how you sell an indie-type character comedy like 'Larry Crowne.' You sell it by earning critical praise and generating buzz from festivals. And even that doesn't guarantee you that an indie movie will break through to a mainstream audience like 'Little Miss Sunshine' did; it only gives you a better shot at success with an art-house audience. Yet the marketing line on 'Larry Crowne' wasn't, "It's a movie that will make you feel like X made you feel" (where X is an indie movie like "Little Miss Sunshine" or "The Kids Are All Right" that people liked but whose premise was hard to distill into a single sentence). Rather, it was "It's a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts."
(Look at the poster, with Hanks and Roberts on what looks like a Vespa, seeming to have a grand old time, as if they were co-starring in 'La Dolce Vita' and tearing through the streets of Rome. Actually, this is a movie about a man whose big act of midlife-crisis rebellion is to buy a used moped and go scooting through the streets of suburbia and a woman who reluctantly accepts a ride from him when she's stranded at a bus stop by her drunken lout of a husband. Not quite the same thing.)
It's no wonder Universal thought the mere presence of Hanks and Roberts could sell 'Larry Crowne.' After all, they're huge stars, and in the absence of an easy-to-explain premise, they're all the movie had going for it, marketing-wise. That their combined star power wasn't enough to turn a quirky little comedy into a broad-appeal hit is no knock on Hanks and Roberts. After all, the whole star system is broken.
Hollywood doesn't really rely on stars to sell movies anymore. It's concepts that sell movies to mass audiences, usually familiar concepts like superheroes or pre-existing titles and characters. As long as the movie is well-executed, you can make a hit out of 'Thor' by casting anybody (or, as it turned out, nobody). The blockbuster industry is moving toward films like 'Avatar' (where director James Cameron was both the star and the concept), where there are not only no A-list performers needed but pretty much no humans needed. It's no wonder that the movie this weekend that clobbered 'Larry Crowne' (and everything else in its path) was 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon.' Also known as: the movie where Megan Fox was replaced by an unknown because people are only buying tickets to see the robots, not to see the hot chick who runs from the robots.
As a marketing tool, stars are a relic. Sure, it helps to have talented performers like Hanks and Roberts if you're going to tell a complicated story about the inner lives of two middle-aged people rebooting their lives. But who wants to see glamourous Hollywood icons doing that? Let Hanks chase down more ecclesiastical mysteries as Robert Langdon, let Roberts play another spunky Cinderella with big dreams - the kind of familiar, escapist, broad-stroke concepts their fans love - and they'll be box office royals again.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.