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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.