DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on the Frustrations of Being a Kevin James Fan

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This past weekend, the comedy “Here Comes the Boom” was a critical and commercial disappointment, receiving generally dismissive reviews and ending up a lowly No. 5 at the box office. The poor notices weren’t a surprise, but the poor grosses were. “Here Comes the Boom” is the latest vehicle for Kevin James, who in the last few years has established himself as an emerging star. Lovable and sweet where other comics are hip or crass, James has carved out a niche for himself as a likable everyman. I’ve enjoyed him in just about everything he’s done on film and in television. Unfortunately, I’ve almost never enjoyed the projects themselves.

James grew up in Long Island and first made his name as a standup, making observational humor that often poked fun at his own foibles. His persona was that of a well-meaning doofus, an image that was enhanced by his plus-size figure and soft features. This regular-guy demeanor soon translated into a recurring role on his friend Ray Romano’s sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And from there, James got his own show, “The King of Queens,” which transplanted his “Raymond” character Doug Heffernan into its own universe.

Though the show ran for nine seasons, “The King of Queens” was never much of a critical favorite. (It received exactly one Emmy nomination, for James for Outstanding Lead Actor.) And while it was certainly a formulaic sitcom — even casting Jerry Stiller, who had been part of the “Seinfeld” juggernaut, as James’s Frank Constanza-like father-in-law — it was boosted by its star’s utter naturalness as a working-class delivery driver. At a time when so-called “blue-collar comedy” in the form of Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy was playing into cultural stereotypes and parading its redneck bona fides, Doug didn’t seem to have a political agenda: He was just a nice guy who loved football and got annoyed by the same things we all do.

And while “The King of Queens” definitely followed the formula of pairing an average-looking comic with an impossibly beautiful wife, James’s show shook things up a little by having Doug’s wife (Leah Remini) not be the calm, rational one who had to put up with her husband’s crazy schemes. Instead, she was often the ambitious, irritable one that he had to calm down, creating a good-cop dynamic that James would continue to exploit when he transitioned into film.

By 2005, he had already appeared in Adam Sandler’s “50 First Dates,” but it was in “Hitch” where he first showed his potential as a film actor. Perhaps importantly, he wasn’t the lead, instead playing the charming, understated second fiddle to Will Smith’s charismatic, cocky love doctor. By comparison, James was a mild-mannered executive trying to woo the gorgeous Amber Valletta. In real life, a guy as timid as James would never land such a beauty, but his innate sweetness made this proposition, at least in the fluffy world of romantic comedies, at least seem plausible. “Hitch” wasn’t much of a movie, but James was a charmer.

Afterward, James moved on to “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” where he co-starred with Sandler. As on “The King of Queens,” he was the nice guy in contrast to Sandler’s homophobic, babe-hound character, playing a kind-hearted widower who just wants to take care of his two kids. Whether you thought “Chuck and Larry” was a groundbreaking commentary on gay relationships or just a crude Sandler comedy, James’s character’s undeniable decency gave the movie its emotional center.

With James now firmly entrenched in the Sandler camp, I was hoping he would be able to do better as a leading man than other Sandler pals like Rob Schneider and David Spade had fared. Unfortunately, his first starring role, 2009’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” was an utter abomination — the sort of juvenile, lowest-common-denominator misfire that movie studios dump in January that they just want off their slate. I assumed it would bomb and would hamper James’s career. Shows you how good my box-office prognostication skills are: “Paul Blart” was a huge hit, winning two straight weekends and ending up with more than $146 million. James co-wrote “Paul Blart,” but the “Die Hard”-in-a-mall premise didn’t do enough to emphasize his sweetness or his sneaky slightly-skewed-ordinary-guy essence. As someone who had been a fan of his for a while, I suppose I was happy for James’s success, but, seriously, the endless fat-guy jokes of “Paul Blart” didn’t make me optimistic about his future.

My attitude didn’t change with subsequent films. In “Grown Ups,” “The Dilemma,” and “Zookeeper,” it’s been more of the same, with James’s likable presence overshadowed by broader, louder costars or, in the case of “Zookeeper,” by talking animals voiced by the likes of Sandler, Cher and Sylvester Stallone. The reviews for “Zookeeper,” his second solo starring vehicle, were just as brutal as they were for “Paul Blart,” but the movie made about half as much money, perhaps a signal that audiences were tiring of James. I could understand: The modest charm of his earlier roles had calcified into a nice-guy shtick that wasn’t nearly as enjoyable when it was forced to shoulder the burden of miserable dreck all by itself.

That’s why I’m most disappointed with the lukewarm returns for “Here Comes the Boom.” While it’s not a film I’d recommend, it’s the first time James has been the leading man in a movie that clearly plays to his strengths. As with “Paul Blart” and “Zookeeper,” he co-wrote “Here Comes the Boom,” and he’s hit upon a timely premise. Scott Voss (James) was once a dedicated high school teacher who has grown complacent and lazy over time. But when an older teacher (Henry Winkler) whom he admires discovers that his music program is going to be cut due to budget restraints, Scott decides to become an MMA wrestler to win enough money to save the program.

James has always poked fun at his own beefiness, which has made his surprisingly graceful moves all the more delightful. (The highlight of “Hitch” is probably watching James dance.) “Here Comes the Boom” utilizes this juxtaposition to good effect as Scott convincingly goes toe-to-toe with professional MMA fighters: He’s big enough but also swift enough to play the part. And while the movie is a paint-by-numbers sports film, James knows how to be lovable without seeming needy or cloying about it. Like too many of the movies he’s associated with, though, “Here Comes the Boom” is only tolerable because of his presence, and you wonder if he’s not ambitious enough to do better or if he’s happy starring in mediocre Hollywood product. I still think the guy’s got potential — but sometimes I’m not sure if he sees that potential in himself.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
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Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
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Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
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Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
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Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
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Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
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Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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