Kevin James stars in this weekend's big new movie, Grown Ups, and yet people's reaction to all the advertising has largely not been, "Hey, it's the new Kevin James movie!" but rather a puzzled, "Why is the King of Queens in the Saturday Night Live reunion?" But being taken for granted and underestimated has been the hallmark of James's career so far: His hit sitcom lasted nine seasons, but all attention and Emmys went to the show's network mate, Everybody Loves Raymond. And when Paul Blart: Mall Cop, his first movie as sole leading man, came out in January of 2009, it was dismissed by the media right up until its opening weekend, when it grossed $39 million, on the way to a total of $220 million. And even after that smash, you rarely hear him mentioned in articles ticking off today's ever-shrinking roster of sure-thing actors. Is this a close-minded oversight of a burgeoning megastar, or an apt assumption that Blart was a fluke? To find out, we studied James's career, box-office take, and image, and talked to Hollywood agents and publicists to gauge his real value on the Star Market.
STOCK HISTORY: James, 45, started as a stand-up comic, working the circuit (and making the obligatory stop on Star Search) with his genial, self-deprecating observational humor for seven years, landing a development deal with NBC that would come to nothing. But when his fellow comedian pal Ray Romano recruited him for a sporadic role on Raymond, he parlayed those appearances into a nine-season-long run as the goofily self-deprecating Doug Heffernan on the working-class comedy The King of Queens, a CBS workhorse that never attracted much buzz while quietly averaging around 14 million viewers at its peak. It also became a syndication staple, making him a very wealthy man: Insiders estimate he has earned $75 to 100 million (so far) from the series.
He kicked off his film career with 2005's Hitch, in which he was the funny fat guy to Will Smith's charming romantic lead. The film grossed $180 million, though James got none of the credit, just as few credited him when he co-starred with Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which grossed $120 million. (Though they did mention him in Germany, where he is huge: There, he got top billing over Sandler.) Then came Blart, which on first glance felt like a Chris Farley leftover, as if someone had found an old Beverly Hills Ninja 2 script and done a quick Find/Replace to set it in a mall. But though James, like the late Farley, is an adept physical comedian with surprising agility for his girth, he's not nearly as manic, and that weary, downplayed charm on and offscreen (he's a tireless promoter for his movies) has won over audiences. Which is not to say Paul Blart was clever, mind you, but that doesn't seem to matter to him. He's following the unapologetically broad model of his patron, Sandler, who produced Blart as well as James's upcoming comedies The Zookeeper and Here Comes the Boom.
PAST EARNINGS: Tracking down James's growing salary is difficult, as he's repped by WME's Adam Venit, one of the most secretive and closed-mouthed agents in the business. (Venit also represents Sandler, one of the most private, secretive stars in the business.) We have learned that with bonuses, James made $20 million from Paul Blart, and one high-placed agent estimates that he can now command $8 to 10 million per picture.
PEERS: Execs now say James is in the same class as Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn — all can open a very specific kind of comedy. However, they have different expertises: Vaughn goes for the acerbic romantic comedy, while Ferrell gravitates toward Apatowian movies that are so dumb they come back around to smart. James's Sandlerian films rarely swerve toward smart, but have an underlying sweetness.
MARKET VALUE: With Blart a monster hit, he can keep making as many middle-of-the-road silly comedies as he wants, though his perceived worth does drop when he moves out of that niche: he's currently shooting Ron Howard's comedy Cheaters with Vince Vaughn, and we hear it was Vaughn's presence that got the film green-lighted, not James's. He's also appealing to studios because he brings no drama to a project and is willing to do whatever it takes to promote a movie. When selling Blart, he traveled all over the country, missing holidays with his family in order to get the word out. That kind of single-minded dedication to the cause is very appealing to an executive who wants to sell tickets.
WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: One agent advises, “Don't get too fancy, don't get too clever: Just book him in those down the middle family comedies, and you can cash checks for millions of dollars for the next few years.” According to another, “A lot of us think there's a real shot with him. And of course, he should do a sequel to Paul Blart at some point — I don’t know why that hasn’t happened yet, because it’s a no-brainer.” A publicist says that James's appeal lies outside of New York and Los Angeles, so as long as he stays in touch with the middle of the country, he'll be fine: "You have him do local premieres, in say, Miami, Cleveland, or Dallas. No fancy suits, no ties. Just dress him like a regular guy. You have him doing screenings with Q&As, it makes people go out and say how nice he was, that he shook their hand and was a polite, funny guy. Then they go tell their family and friend about it and bring them to see the movie all over again.”
THE ANALYSIS: Fans of his witty, sharp sitcom and crack timing may wish that James would do something a little smarter, but that's not what will make him a superstar. If you wonder what would happen if he broke away from the Sandler school, you also have to wonder, why should he? His unambitious, silly family comedies are a lock with middle-America moviegoers who just want some good, clean fun and fat jokes.
BOTTOM LINE: As long as there's not some deep scandal waiting to destroy his harmless, likable image, James will continue to be a dependable star of movies that critics hate and audiences love.
BUY/SELL/HOLD: A strong buy!
Next week's Star Market: Taylor Lautner.