Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks, 98 mins (12A)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay, 150 mins

Hanks hits rock bottom – and keeps on digging

It's mind-boggling to think that Hollywood's biggest studios turned down the chance to bankroll a comedy starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and co-written by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) – at least, it's mind-boggling until you see Larry Crowne. But once you've sat through it, mouth agape, you can only commend the prudence of those movie moguls who left Hanks's own company to do the financing. What becomes mind-boggling, instead, is that a megastar as savvy as he is should have co-written, directed, produced and starred in a film without having the faintest idea of what it's saying.

It starts auspiciously enough, with Hanks as a divorced Navy veteran who's fired from his beloved job as a hypermarket shelf-stacker. The pretext he's given is that he doesn't have any higher education, so he enrolls in a local college where he's 30 years older than any other student. It's a perfectly serviceable and timely premise for a fish-out-of-water comedy, but once Hanks gets to college, the film collapses into a plotless, jokeless shambles. He's shown to be confident and articulate, and yet he takes a class called "The Art Of Informal Remarks". His lecturer, Roberts, appears to despise both her career and her students, and yet she's hailed as "life-changing". When the pair of them start snogging, they're so mismatched that it's creepy: why would Roberts' caustic alcoholic want to get together with Forrest Gump? Stranger still, Hanks studies economics with a sinister George Takei, and he's inducted into a scooter gang which specialises in trips to "vintage stores and junk shops". Were Hanks and Vardalow making up this drivel as they went along? Presumably their script had page numbers printed on it, but otherwise it can't have had many resemblances to a finished screenplay, and Hanks has filmed it with all the pizzazz of a 1970s "Safety At Work" instructional video.

To be fair, it's not quite as jaw-dropping as The Beaver, which was directed by Jodie Foster and which starred Mel Gibson, but it's still quite phenomenal that one month should yield two such calamitous films masterminded by four of the richest, most experienced and Oscar-laden gods of Hollywood. You'd guess, watching Larry Crowne, that Hanks had never been in a film before. Actually, you'd guess that he'd never seen one.

In that company, even Transformers: Dark Of The Moon starts to seem tolerable, although, like the previous two Transformers instalments, it's such a headache that paracetamol should produce a limited-edition tie-in pack. The action sequences are deafening onslaughts, in which time is always slowing down and speeding up, and in which indistinguishable giant robots pirouette weightlessly in the air as if, well, they're not giant robots at all, but computer graphics. But what really makes the film exhausting is that the dialogue scenes are just as frantic. Shia LaBeouf's obnoxious hero shouts and sweats so manically that the shots of him ingesting a sackful of cocaine and benzedrine must have been left on the cutting room floor – and the supporting cast won't be outdone. It's painful to see John Turturro, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand travestying themselves so energetically. You can almost picture Michael Bay, the director, jeering at the film critics in the audience. "Like these actors, do you? Think they're good in the Coen brothers' stuff? Well, look at what they'll do when I'm paying their wages!"

Still, these things are all relative, and T:DOTM is certainly far better than its two predecessors. Its director, Michael Bay, can't stop himself stuffing it with intrusive product placement, lecherous shots of its female cast, and too much swearing for a children's film, but he's cut down on his customary racism, and the number of completely irrelevant characters has been reduced to single figures. More importantly, he's finally realised that, on some level, a Transformers film has to be about robots from outer space fighting each other. For once, there's an alien-invasion plot that just about hangs together, there are goodies and baddies who act in broadly consistent ways, and there's a solid hour of explosions to round things off. I'm not saying you should go to see it, but if you do want to watch a Transformers film, this is the first one that does what it's supposed to.

Next Week:

Demetrios Matheou puts his faith in Trust, the Clive Owen internet thriller

Also Showing: 03/07/2011

The Conspirator (123 mins, 12A)

Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an idealistic lawyer (James McAvoy) has to defend the mother (Robin Wright) of one of the conspirators, even while his friends and colleagues bay for her blood. For all the waistcoats and mutton-chop sideburns on show, it's obvious that Robert Redford, who directs, has more recent American history on his mind. "We must not sacrifice our sacred rights for the sake of revenge,'' declares McAvoy. It's a respectable restatement of liberal principles, but this feels like an HBO mini-series.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (90 mins)

This quirky, dragonfly-on-the-wall documentary (above) examines the Japanese love of insects, a love that is apparently bound up with agriculture, environmentalism, Shinto-Buddhism and haikus. It's enlightening, but for a film that goes on about transience and miniaturism, it takes its time.

As If I Am Not There (109 mins, 18)

In this bleak Bosnian war drama, a young woman is raped by her captors in a prison camp and eventually becomes the girlfriend of the camp's captain. Its style is so sparse, and its heroine so blank, that you don't get much more from the film than from that one-sentence summary.

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