The big review: Larry Crowne (12A) (98 mins) **; The Conspirator (12A) (123 mins) **

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The Independent Online

Watching the romantic comedy Larry Crowne is like listening to someone tell a very long but harmless joke. It's sweet that they've tried, but it's a little bit tiresome having to sit there and feign laughter. Its writer, director and star is Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood's most bankable – and most neutered – of actors. With one or two exceptions, Hanks has never really stretched himself since his two Oscar wins of the 1990s (for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump),

His Larry Crowne is a decent blue-collar guy who works at the local U-Mart. Summoned to the office one day expecting another Employee of the Month award, he learns instead that he's being fired, because his promotional prospects are "forever retarded" by his lack of a college education. Devastated, Larry binges on drugs and booze, loads up a shotgun and – no, just kidding. He actually gets a job in a diner and enrols at a college to get the qualifications he missed out on. There he is befriended, somewhat incredibly, by a sassy young student, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Were this a risky film, Larry might pursue Talia – who's flirty, beautiful and black – crossing the barriers of age and race perhaps to find himself an outcast, or a daring romantic. Instead it goes for the much easier fantasy of his falling for his college professor, who just happens to be (brilliant!) Julia Roberts. She is Mercedes Tainot, utterly disaffected with her job and her marriage to a blogger who watches internet porn all day. Conveniently, he's soon out on his ear, and the way is clear for her and Larry to hook up. But likeable as Hanks and Roberts are, their romance is a starchy liaison between two people who seem to have very little in common.

As a writer-director, Hanks looks out of practice (his last effort was That Thing You Do!, a pleasant 1960s pop pastiche from 1996). The pacing is dozy and the characterisation offhand to the point of negligence. Of course, you can't really object to the likes of Hanks and Roberts: they will never do less than a professional job. But the film they're attached to is blander than a milkshake.

Robert Redford is, like Hanks, a Hollywood untouchable who's always wanted too badly to be loved. His latest film as director, The Conspirator, is a lavishly mounted but ponderously composed "lesson from history". In the aftermath of President Lincoln's murder in April 1865 the authorities arrested Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Southern Catholic widow and owner of a Washington boarding house where several conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth, had stayed. A military tribunal rather than a jury of her peers is set up to try Mrs. Surratt, whose son John was among the plotters. Was she involved in it, or merely guilty by association?

That is the question young defence attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) must solve in a second half that flips between the courtroom and flashbacks to the Surratt family's recent past.

McAvoy is a perky bantam presence as Aiken, and Wright projects a sense of oppression nobly borne. Sadly, she's been given hardly anything to say, and only at the very end, with a gallows lowering over her, does The Conspirator deliver a blow that truly winds. Until then it's been mostly the comforting breeze of civics-class rhetoric.