Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks star in "Larry Crowne." (Kevin Winter, Getty Images )
They're two of Hollywood's biggest stars, but heading into the July 4th weekend, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are two of the town's biggest underdogs.
In one of the more interesting gambles of the summer movie season, the producers of "Larry Crowne" (starring the duo) are opening the mid-budget romantic comedy directly opposite "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," whose 3-D metallic robots will crush all rivals at the box office.
Studios — and in particular their art film divisions — typically try to offer counterprogramming options to summer moviegoers. Sony Pictures Classics introduced Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" against "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," in May, while Fox Searchlight unveiled "The Tree of Life" on the same weekend as "The Hangover Part II" and "Kung Fu Panda 2."
But "Midnight" and "Tree" were launched in just a handful of theaters, in the hopes that positive buzz would propel them into more markets in subsequent weeks — a move that worked. In contrast, "Larry Crowne" is opening Friday on about 2,600 screens, with the belief that it can generate modest but steady business for several weekends.
Audience tracking surveys suggest the film appeals to an adult audience led by women 35 and older, but not in great numbers, meaning "Larry Crowne's" initial returns could also trail the second-weekend performances of "Bad Teacher" and "Cars 2." If "Larry Crowne" can take in about $15 million in its first four days and generate good word of mouth, it could be on track to gross $40 million or more in domestic release. Reviews of the PG-13 film so far, though, have been mixed to poor.
Vendôme Pictures, a French independent film producer whose first movie, April's "Source Code," grossed a respectable $54.5 million, financed the $30-million "Larry Crowne." The film is being released by Universal Pictures, which previously had been developing the movie but chose not to make it. (Universal is paying for the film's prints and advertising, and will collect a distribution fee.)
The film is a passion project for Hanks and his production company, Playtone. Hanks not only starred in and directed "Larry Crowne" but also cowrote it with Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") and produced it with his Playtone partner, Gary Goetzman.
Hanks has been trekking around the country to promote the film, visiting Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago to drum up interest. He is dropping by some usual publicity destinations ("The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," "Late Show With David Letterman") and making more curious stops, like Spanish-language television network Univision (where he danced with a weather reporter) and public radio stations (Pasadena's KPCC-FM visited the film's set).
In the movie, Hanks plays Crowne, an apparently content and productive employee at UMart, a K-Mart-like store. Because Crowne, who served in the U.S. Navy, does not have a college degree and thus cannot be promoted into management, his bosses at the store fire him.
Crowne then enrolls in a community college and signs up for a speech class taught by Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), a disillusioned professor whose troubled marriage is pushing her toward alcoholism. While in college, Crowne also joins up with a bunch of younger students who tool around Los Angeles on motorized scooters. It's the first starring live-action film role for Hanks since 2009's "Angels & Demons"; Roberts starred in 2010's "Eat Pray Love."
Hanks said at the film's premiere Monday that he hoped the film would strike ticket buyers as an optimistic take on a relatable subject — "genuinely tough times," as the actor put it. "It needs to be authentic and recognizable," Hanks said of the film's story, "something that truly could happen in the real world. Otherwise, we're not living up to our jobs." He said he believed the film is in some ways intended to "fight the cynicism" even if "it's not an easy thing to do."
Vendôme's Philippe Rousselet said opening "Larry Crowne" this weekend was "very gutsy" and that he understands that people won't "rush to see 'Larry Crowne' the way they will rush to see 'Transformers 3.' " By dating the movie opposite director Michael Bay's action film, Vendôme and Universal can show that the summer isn't solely the domain of "sequels and franchises and action heroes," Rousselet said.
"The audience for this movie is definitely a more adult audience," he said. "The challenge is to get people in the theater. But I don't think it's any different for 'Bad Teacher' or [July 8's] 'Horrible Bosses' or any other adult movies in the summertime."
Hanks and Roberts "might be a little bit less fashionable than robots right now," Rousselet said of the actors who starred in 2007's "Charlie Wilson's War," which grossed a so-so $66.7 million domestically. "But I strongly believe that people want to see them together."
Times staff writer Jessica Gelt contributed to this report.