This past decade (and maybe this next one too) is likely going to go down in American history as the years of "tough economic times," an often-used and heavily quoted saying.  A great many Americans (this school teacher blogger included) have had or are still in cycles of employment or housing turmoil.  Jobs have been hard to find and hard to hold onto and collapsing housing values and loans dominate the financial news.  Though movies themselves are a luxury many people have cut back on in their lives, more and more of them, like last winter's Company Men and the new film opening Friday, Larry Crowne, are starting to highlight human stories of these (there it is) "tough economic times" in an attempt to lift our chins up and put smiles on our faces.

Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks's first foray into feature film directing since 1996's That Thing You Do, succeeds in those two things.  It's a chipper and charming story of an everyman we can root for and a tough teacher who is loosened up by her students.  It may not have the huge laughs and raunchy gags of Bridesmaids, but Larry Crowne is a worthy summer comedy and arguably as good of a romantic comedy for 2011 as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

Tom Hanks plays the title character everyman who's an all-star, do-it-all worker at the big-box U-Mart (a disguised K-Mart) when the rug is pulled out from under him by upper management.  Due to his lack of college education, after leaving 20 years in the Navy as a cook directly into the workforce, Larry has to be let go.  Rather than mope, Larry's proactive, yet inexperienced personality puts him on the job hunt when his helpful neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson) entertain to him the idea of going to community college to bolster his resume with the education he was lacking before.

Larry, already underwater on his mortgage, trades his gas-guzzling SUV for a scooter and enrolls in East Valley Community College.  There, he joins the very random and very funny potpourri of students, not unlike NBC's weekly comedy Community.  As a scooter-rider, he soon meets classmate and free-spirit Talia (outstanding newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who introduces Larry to her boyfriend Dell's (Wilmer Valderrama, who will always be "Fez" no matter how much facial hair and studly muscles he puts on his body) scooter pool "gang."  Talia gives Larry a nickname, takes a shine to his affable nature, and seeks to modernize him up.

As Larry finds a new group of compadres, he's knee-deep in a pair of challenging classes at EVCC.  The first is public speaking under Mrs. Mercedes Taibot (Academy Award winner Julia Roberts) and Econ 1 with Dr. Matsutani (Star Trek's George Takei).  Mercedes dreads her lower rung teaching job and goes home to booze and a deadbeat struggling author husband (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad).

Throughout the film, we are treated to many fun scenes of a square becoming more hip and a teacher who starts to rekindle the spark for her job.  Of course, a clever romance begins to brew between Larry and Mercedes.  While some might feel that Larry Crowne is a feature-length and less-crass version of the aforementioned Community, Hanks's film stands up just fine in telling a far more realistic story of re-education during the economic downturn.  You'll have a hard time getting the ever-present smile off of your face for two hours.

Besides, who better to cheer us up on the topic of the tough economy than Hollywood's most likeable actor reteaming with Hollywood's most admired smile and leading lady, Julia Roberts?  Both are fantastic in romantic comedy modes we haven't seen them do in a while.  For Tom, it's his first romantic comedy since The Terminal and, for Julia, it's been since Ocean's Eleven and America's Sweethearts.  If you haven't seen their chemistry together in 2007's underappreciated Charlie Wilson's War, go check it out and you'll appreciate Larry Crowne all the more.  The film delivers the right charming notes at the right kind of dramatic time.  It's perfect summer counter-programming opening in the same frame as mega-blockbuster-in-waiting Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

LESSON #1: THESE TRULY ARE TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES-- The fictional story of Larry Crowne is not unlike millions of other and more real American stories.  People are downsized, budget-cut, and let go at alarming rates in our present day.  People are taking extra and odd jobs just to make ends meet and the housing foreclosure crisis is unprecedented in our country's history.  The story and lesson here is how to bounce back and roll with the punches.  How do we best downsize our life when we ourselves are downsized?

LESSON #2: THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY COLLEGES AND ADULT EDUCATION-- Larry Crowne goes to show that there's nothing wrong with continuing education or the ideal that it's never too late to go to school.  So often, people look down on community or small public colleges as second-rate education compared to having the stamp of a major university on your resume.  That is not so.  There are plenty of opportunities and excellent careers generated through adult education classes and community college studies.  It's never too late to try take a chance, better yourself, and try something new.

LESSON #3: SEIZING A FRESH START AND A SECOND CHANCE-- If there's one thing we know about second chances, it's that they don't come around very often.  They have to be seized and not passed up.  The same goes for making the conscious effort to freshen things up when times change.  Movie-cheesy or not, Larry shows that there is a more than a little personal empowerment that comes from making lifestyle changes as simple as fashion, friendship, and social involvement.  There's a reason why self-help shows like Oprah and Martha Stewart have so popular for so long.  However, no matter the size or type of fresh start or second chance, it has to be taken with initiative.  Moping will not bring them to you.