I’ve been watching Kevin James movies for years. But, like most of my fellow pointy-head critics, I haven’t liked most of them. Which perplexes and troubles me, because I’m a fan of dumb comedy. (I made my friends take me to Joe Dirt on my birthday many years ago.) Plus, I’ve spent countless hours defending Adam Sandler, whose Happy Madison company produces many of James’s films, and who co-starred with the latter in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) and the two Grown Ups. Which is all to say: I feel like I should like Kevin James. And yet, I find myself dreading the impending release of each new Kevin James movie, including this week’s Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.
As I recently revisited James’s oeuvre — not just his movies, but also his TV and stand-up work — I was struck by the profound gap between his prodigious talents and his films’ meager humor. It’s a dissonance that speaks to the boilerplate quality of the roles he’s been given. Even though he himself, as a persona, continues to shine.
That persona — the aggrieved Everyman — has been well documented. I even discussed it myself in my review of 2012’s Here Comes the Boom. At the time, I wrote:
[He] possesses a kind, Everyman-ish face that actually makes us not want to see him too hurt, or humiliated, or debased. He’s been mentored by Adam Sandler (whose Happy Madison company produced several other James vehicles, including this latest), but we don’t expect from him Sandler’s sociopathic mischief, or Ben Stiller’s owlish klutziness. James seems physically awkward, but likably ordinary. There, but for the grace of an occasional salad, go we.
This may be part of his appeal, but it’s also part of his problem. Everymen are not inherently funny. They’re not deluded nitwits like Will Ferrell’s characters, or schlemiels like Ben Stiller’s, or motormouths like Kevin Hart’s, or foulmouths like Melissa McCarthy’s. They don’t have a shtick. They can find themselves in funny situations, sure, but by and large, they’re blank slates. An Everyman can wind up in a horror movie or drama just as surely as he or she can wind up in a comedy. In order to be an effective comic Everyman, an actor has to bring something else besides his Everyman-ness.
James’s persona, though, is a hybrid – or at least it’s supposed to be. He’s a combination of the Everyman and the Fat Guy. (By the way, any references to James’s girth aren’t meant to be snide fat-shaming; much of his comedy relies on gags about his weight.) Every generation has its own take on the Fat Guy. Once, John Belushi was a perfect vessel for all the deranged decadence and overindulgence of the 1970s and early ‘80s. Then, for a while, we had John Candy, who was a lot cuddlier and human than Belushi, but still decidedly other: The Everyman in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) is Steve Martin, not Candy. Then we had Chris Farley, whose humor was largely founded on aggressive, often-hilarious grossness — like a less-self-aware, more-one-dimensional Belushi. Along the way, others have dabbled in this kind of comedy: John Goodman in King Ralph (1991); or Kenan Thompson in Fat Albert (2004). But over the years, one could say that the Everyman and the Fat Guy have merged, and found a new form in the shape of Kevin James.
James, however, seems uncomfortable with the usual Fat Guy roles, and with the gross-out gags they demand: The first Paul Blart (2009) features a completely random and unfunny eating contest, which comes out of the blue and goes nowhere; Grown Ups 2 (2013) tries (pathetically, halfheartedly) to turn James’s “burpsnart” — a combination burp, sneeze, and fart — into a signature gimmick. A lot of these movies also turn on the awkwardness of James’s physique, on showing him galumph and run and jump; the early scenes of Here Comes the Boom are full of this sort of thing. None of it works.
It doesn’t work because it’s not what James is good at. Kevin James is not physically awkward at all; in fact, he’s quite graceful. In his stand-up, for example, he transforms mundane jokes about visiting the bank or going waterskiing with bits of elegant physical comedy — stretching a leg out just so to mime someone trying to hold a place in line, or silently rolling with fake waves to imitate someone stranded at sea. The combination of his girth and his physical elegance has a unique magic. He may resemble a fire hydrant, but he can deftly execute jumping mid-air splits. Similarly, the best parts of Paul Blart have to do with him on a Segway, easily gliding around that mall. When James gets on that ridiculous vehicle, he seems light, capable of anything, and his movement achieves an almost dancerly affect. (James also happens to be a great dancer, as he has demonstrated in several of his films, as well as on his hit sitcom King of Queens.)
Even though he often plays someone who seems unable to control his body, what comes through as you watch Kevin James in all these films is that he’s quite comfortable in his own skin. This disconnect is maybe why his act — when it’s reliant on making him awkward and lumbering — doesn’t quite work. But it’s also why James, a former high-school wrestler, is still compelling: We sense that he’s capable of a lot more than what he’s being asked to do.
James couples that grace with a certain sincerity, a good-heartedness. That’s where the Everyman appeal reaches beyond mere ordinariness into something deeper. In The Dilemma (2011), James plays a brilliant automotive engineer, happily married to Winona Ryder. But then his best friend and work partner (Vince Vaughn) catches Ryder cheating on him. The film is mostly about Vaughn’s “dilemma” — whether to tell James about Ryder’s infidelity, at a time when James is busy at work on a new engine that could make or break their careers. But the best parts of the film have to do with the two men’s relationship, and a lot of that has to do with the innate decency that James brings to his part.
In I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, James’s presence is a deceptively odd one. His earnest, tense demeanor strikes a sharp contrast to Sandler’s devil-may-care nihilism. They might as well be in two different movies. Their chemistry shouldn’t work — and to be fair, the film has lots of problems — but it sort of does. You can see how these two guys might secretly be drawn to each other in real life. James’s character tempers the Sandler character’s aggro bullshit. (And you wonder if, in some strange way, the two actors’ relationship in the film might mirror their real-life one.)
Similarly, in Here Comes the Boom, what works is not the comedy but the film’s commitment to its emotional through line — James’s character trying to save the music program at his school by competing as a mixed-martial-arts fighter. There’s lots of physical humor in the film, and most of it’s inert. But we remain attached to James’s quest because we like him, and we like him because he exudes honesty.
Oddly enough, the things that make James such an endearing personality are the things that make his films problematic for me: He’s not being used in the right ways. How often do we find a comedian so likable and relatable, and yet so self-deprecating, and with real physical grace? Kevin James might actually be a very rare talent. It’s too bad that so many of the films he’s made seem oblivious to that possibility.