Sometimes, comedy is as much about the messenger as it is the message. Case in point: Adam Carolla. The stand-up/performer, responsible for such contrasting fare as Loveline (the radio and TV relationships show he co-hosted with Dr. Drew Pinsky from 1995 until 2005), the chauvinistic romp The Man Show, and Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, is one of those odd, ‘love him or hate him’ entities. His smug, pseudo-frat boy shtick can grow horribly tiresome, and yet his quick sarcastic wit can reduce the most ridiculous circumstance down to a targeted one liner. So a feel good sports satire starring the man as an aging boxer grabbing one last shot at glory stands little chance of succeeding, except in small snippets, right? Wrong. The Hammer is actually one of the funniest films that the still sagging laugh-a-thon genre has to offer.
For Jerry Ferro, turning 40 is just another day on the calendar. His girlfriend still complains about his lack of ambition, his Nicaraguan best friend Ozzy remains naively optimistic about America as a land of opportunity, and his boss still hates his guts. Luckily, he can go to the local gym and work off his frustrations. As a former teen pugilist, Jerry enjoys the fight game. He even teaches a few classes to keep sharp. When he knocks out a cocky competitor during a sparing match, he earns the respect of a noted Olympic trainer. Soon, he has signed up to compete in the regional tryouts, with a shot at making the 2008 games in Beijing. And thanks to a budding relationship with public defender Lindsay Pratt, things are looking up on the interpersonal front as well.
Built out of character, not crudity, and wonderfully uplifting without being maudlin or pat, The Hammer (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is actually quite accomplished. Considering its independent production paradigm and low budget limitations, it is a funny and fresh take on material that’s as old as cinema itself. The tale of a washed up loser finding redemption in one more tour of competitive duty is not new - just ask Wallace Berry, Sylvester Stallone, or John Voight. It plays into everyone’s desire for a second chance, the possibility of being true to their own nature, and the universal wish fulfillment that comes with winning. Carolla’s character is a decent guy dealt cards he can never play. By using boxing as a way back, he has a chance at finally re-stacking the deck in his favor.
A storyline like this is prone to cliché, but Carolla - who came up with the idea and worked closely with Kevin Hench on the script - avoids all but the most mandatory of chestnuts. We have a crusty old trainer that’s seen it all, contrasted by the girlfriend without a lick of faith in her man. There’s the idealistic young lawyer who puts her clients in front of her career, and the foreign best buddy whose broken English expressions hold a world of cockeyed wisdom. Between the black boxer with a stubborn, nu-jack attitude, to the last act discovery and betrayal, The Hammer could easily be a solid studio era potboiler. Toss in an A-list actor (or equally forgotten face) and you’d have that classic combination of underdog tale and five hanky tearjerker.
Except…The Hammer doesn’t want to be so obvious. That is why casting Carolla is crucial to the film’s success - and the difficulty in marketing it. As a celebrity, he gives off a vibe of being crude and confrontational. Many have gotten the mistaken impression that he’s one step away from Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass joking, or Howard Stern without the outward adolescent obsessions with sex. Carolla, however, is a far more complicated comedian. He mines both the intellectual and the illiterate for his wit, a sly satiric commentator rather than a simple set-up and punch line jokester. Yet thanks to the limited settings he’s been seen in, audiences still think of him as abrasive and obnoxious.
It’s an underserved reputation that makes the first few minutes of The Hammer rather disorienting. When faced with a jerk-off boss, we anticipate the moment where Carolla will dig into his bag of ironclad insults and lay into the butthead with verve. As his soon to be ex-girlfriend is dressing him down, undermining everything that makes him human (let alone a man) we anticipate Jerry’s epithet-laden screed. And we wait. Soon, we learn what makes this movie so winning. Unlike other so-called comedies which let a stand-up simply walk into frame and start regurgitating their act, The Hammer gives us realistic, recognizable characters. That Jerry is genuinely funny is just one of his endearing attributes. He’s also troubled, lost, vulnerable, and sickeningly loyal.
There is one scene in particular which shows how well Carolla and Hench balance their approach (with a little help from solid direction by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld). Jerry wants to take lawyer Lindsay on a date. She suggests an afternoon at LA’s goofy La Brea Tar Pits. After he gets over the fact that it’s not a nighttime get together, his string of snappy comebacks while at the historic site are marvelous. Not only is it important for the supposed humor of the piece, but it shows Jerry to be the loveable loser, a man whose hound dog expression hides a winning inner warmth. All throughout The Hammer, the interaction of individuals builds the laughs, not some high concept cop-out or a descent into the scatological.
Perhaps that’s why the DVD commentary track featuring Carolla and Hench is so enlightening. Arguing over how the film received an “R” rating from the MPAA (instead of a much more deserving PG-13), the pair proceed to dissect the script, commenting on how true they are to the “sweet science” as well as arguments over levels of humor and how far outside the boundaries of taste to go. Some of this also shows up in the deleted scenes, Carolla clearly being allowed to run wild, only to have Herman-Wurmfeld reel him in during editing. In fact, what much of the bonus material here indicates is that the age old adages about comedy centering on timing and tenacity remain very true indeed.
Because it refrains from pushing the ordinary aside for the outlandish, because Carolla’s normal (or at the very least, notorious) persona has been modified to fit this material, The Hammer is heartfelt and hilarious. Yet, when faced with how to advertise this movie to the many who already know the man, what can a studio do? If you play up his piggish party boy image, you risk reducing the film to something it truly isn’t. On the other hand, if you tell the truth, reflecting the story’s good natured, journeyman jocularity, you risk dismissing the demographic immediately drawn to the man’s beers and babes cockiness. Frankly, The Hammer can’t win either way, which is rather sad. This genial comedy should be a strapping sleeper success. Instead, it may wind up forgotten, as washed up as the characters at its core. And as with the man at the center of the film itself, it deserves better.