Remember that awesome subplot in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011) wherein a high school teacher tries to make ends meet by entering the UFC, and the principal thinks he’s embarrassing the academic profession, but the students draw inspiration from his courage? Well, Kevin James does too, as evidenced by his new comedy, Here Comes the Boom, about a high school teacher who tries to raise money by entering the UFC, and the principal thinks he’s embarrassing the academic profession, but the students draw inspiration from his courage.
In fairness, some elements have been switched around: rather than pay his mortgage, Scott Voss (Kevin James) aims to use the funds to save his colleague’s music curriculum; rather than negotiate with a loving wife who doesn’t want him to get hurt, he pursues Bella (Salma Hayek), the opinionated school nurse; and, rather than a drama about a realistic underdog with prior MMA experience, we get a fish-out-of-water farce about a likeable doofus who clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing. All these changes are designed to fit a rather tired Hollywood mould, but at least they serve the formula well.
Mind you, I’ve always had a soft spot for James, who seems to have cornered the market for sweetness in goofball comedies. His best so far, Here Comes the Boom stands out for sidestepping the sort of mean-spirited gross-out gags we’ve come to expect from a Happy Madison production. Well, okay, there’s one vomit joke, but director Frank Coraci makes sure to emphasise the awkwardness of the situation instead of its vulgarity. Otherwise, the film features little bile, be it in the form of a cackling villain or offensive sidekick. In fact, the only antagonist, Principal Betcher (Greg Germann), shows up for just a handful of scenes, establishing the initial conflict and then moving aside for some warm-hearted high jinks.
I have admittedly grown weary of James’ loveable pushover persona, but here he plays a different archetype, that of the disabused idealist slowly getting his groove back. The first act presents Scott as an awful educator, the sort of shameless egotist who puts down overachievers to confirm his own cynicism and takes advantage of those who still value their work. It therefore comes as a surprise when our protagonist stands up for Marty (Henry Winkler), a passionate music teacher, and we soon realise Scott has merely lost faith in the system. His transformation back into a productive member of society isn’t desperately original, but, dang it, don’t you find it refreshing to have a comedic hero who isn’t stuck in perpetual adolescence?
The supporting cast also proves endearing, not to mention substantial. Scott has got a lot of colourful characters in his life, including his colleagues and biology students, an elder brother on the verge of a midlife crisis (Gary Valentine), a class of aspiring immigrants studying for their citizenship, and two overexcited coaches portrayed by real-life mixed martial artists Mark DellaGrotte and Bas Rutten. The latter is an absolute revelation as the chronically dorky Niko, who finds passion in even the most ridiculous endeavours. I think I laughed at every single one of his lines.
In a lesser movie, the sheer number of characters would’ve clogged up the narrative, but Here Comes the Boom uses every bit player to extend its message beyond the usual, “Never give up on your dreams!” The idea is to show the value of engaging into the system instead of blaming the other cogs for not turning properly. Sure, Scott and Betcher have good cause to criticise one another, but neither is doing his part to fix the issue. In fact, the situation only improves once our hero reallocates the various resources in his community, using one person’s ambitions to fill the other’s needs.
James, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allen Loeb and Rock Reuben, takes the lesson even further, tying it to notions of immigration and American diversity. I love the scene in which a Filipina student (Charice) explains how she had to relearn everything when she came to the U.S. because of the language barrier. Rather than pity the girl, Scott has her tutoring Niko, who, as a Swedish resident, may benefit from her experience. I suspect this subtle promotion of tolerance will yield better results than the “wagging finger of shame” approach used in films like Crash (2004).
Yes, I’m overselling it a bit. What can I say? Here Comes the Boom turns out a remarkably intelligent “dumb comedy”. Sure, the idea that Scott could compete in the UFC defies common sense no matter how often characters mention his college wrestling years, but the final bout had me on the edge of my seat. By the same token, there’s no denying that James lifted the plot wholesale from the more maudlin half of Warrior or that the movie has pretty much half the brains, but it’s a got a full heart, baby.