Thrilla in Vanilla
The intrepid Tim Allen continues to stretch his 15 minutes, this time out in yet another collabo with his Jungle 2 Jungle, The Santa Clause, and occasional Home Improvement director, John Pasquin. Again, Allen plays a pleasant milquetoast in need of a remake, hence the film’s title, Joe Somebody. This, of course, means doubly: first, no one who knows Joe can remember his name, and second, he becomes a real somebody!
Perhaps thankfully, this simple plot comes with caveats. For one thing, being a real somebody these days doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to, and this little detail actually makes the movie more watchable than it has any right to be. That, and my own predilection to forgive its failings for a wholly irrational reason: turns out that Jim Carrey turned down this part to do the more prestigious project, The Majestic, and, ironically, the lumpier, sillier, more self-congratulatory movie. This isn’t to say that Joe Somebody is exactly good. Rather, it gets points for knowing what it is, a formulaic PG picture without pretensions to grandeur (and for not being The Majestic).
The formula begins in the first seconds of the film—Joe goes to work in the Twin Cities, at some kind of drug-manufacturing company, where he makes promotional, intra-office videos—and people essentially ignore him. Then you find out that his ex-wife Callie (Kelly Lynch—and what happened to her career? I want to know) brusquely left him a while ago for a preening Actor Boy (Ken Marino) and that his 12-year-old daughter Natalie (Hayden Panetierre, the little girl who advised Denzel in Remember the Titans), adores him. She has such a good head on her shoulders that she sees through the affectations of Actor Boy and her own mom (who runs a local theater and appears on local tv spots, with crimped hair and a tight dress). Now nursing a “hole in [his] heart that hurts when the wind blows through it,” Joe is feeling pretty darn sorry for himself.
And then one day, when he brings Nat to work, he has a run-in with office bully Mark (Patrick Wharburton), who bitch-slaps him in the parking lot, in front of the kid and a few astonished and completely unhelpful co-workers. Depression sets in—Joe stops going to work, won’t see Natalie, sleeps on the couch and eats cookies and cheese curls. After a few days, someone at work does notice he’s missing, his weaselly boss Jeremy (Greg Germann, reprising his Ally McBeal role). Worried that his own record will be jeopardized by Joe’s disappearance (and possible suit), the consummately selfish Jeremy sends the company Wellness Coordinator, Meg (Julie Bowen, who is just cute and personable as can be, especially when she’s playing basketball with her Big Sister charges) to Joe’s house to haul him back to his cubicle.
When Meg—already the designated love object because they have already sort of ineptly flirted at the office, while she struggled with her banner for the “Choose Happiness” campaign—asks Joe what he wants, he’s overcome by a panic attack. Apparently, he’s never posed the question to himself (funny thing, he didn’t watch any Oprah while lying on that couch for days on end). And then, he figures it out: he wants a rematch.
Meg and Nat both think this is a bad idea, being sensible females. But male ego prevails, at least for a minute, and Joe heads off to the local hole-in-the-wall martial arts studio, run by a has-been B-action movie star, Chuck (Jim Belushi, apparently making fun of his own has-been-ness, or else even more clueless than he looks). “You got your ass kicked, didn’t you?” queries the beer-bellied Chuck (whose studio is decorated with his movie posters, trumpeting titles like Maximum Punishment and Tom Sawyer Must Die!). When Joe protests, Chuck cajoles him: “Guys who get their asses kicked are 90% of my business!” To the tune of “Whip It,” Joe then attempts to make a man of himself, even as the comic montage sequence reveals that he has a long, long way to go.
But as he has a few weeks to prepare (Mark has actually been suspended for being such a jerk), Joe starts to feel appreciated at work. Seems that everyone hates Mark and love Joe for standing up to him. The office’s Sexy Girl starts flirting with Joe, and the Token Black Guy (Wolfgang Bodison) invites Joe to play squash, has him join in a karaoke rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life,” and teases him good-naturedly about the upcoming “Thrilla in Vanilla” (as Black Guy explains, it’s two white suburban dudes getting it on…). Truly, Joe has become a somebody.
The rest of the movie winds down pretty much as you know it will, with Joe learning that violence doesn’t solve problems, even those having to do with vengeance and reputation. Perhaps the most worthwhile aspect of the film—especially assuming that kids will be seeing it with parents, more than either demographic will be seeing it alone—is Natalie’s role. She doesn’t get as much screen-time as you might expect (she’s in a majority of the trailer’s scenes), but what’s there is, as they say, choice. She may not be a particularly believable kid (but none of the adults come any closer), as she is preternaturally smart and incredibly mature, knows her own needs, and takes care of both her errant parents, along the way forgiving her mother for acting trampy, and her dad for acting retarded. And it might seem odd that the film closes not with her dad’s triumph but with hers: she writes a play for her school’s drama department, which includes roles for a couple of adults who can use the work. But it’s cool. By the time Joe Somebody is over, Nat’s looking like the only character who has somewhere to go.