[Screen It]

(2001) (Tim Allen, Julie Bowen) (PG)

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Comedy: A nearly anonymous, divorced father enjoys his newfound popularity after he announces he's going to fight the company bully.
Joe Scheffer (TIM ALLEN) is a video communications specialist - a.ka. the A/V guy - whose life has been better. Although he has a good relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, Natalie (HAYDEN PANETTIERE), he's now divorced from her mother, Callie (KELLY LYNCH), and isn't recognized for his work and many years of service at Starke Pharmaceuticals.

Things get worse when one of the junior employees, Mark McKinney (PATRICK WARBURTON), cuts him off in the parking lot and then slaps him around in front of Natalie and his coworkers. When Joe doesn't return to work for several days, one of the executives, Jeremy (GREG GERMANN), sends the company's wellness coordinator, Meg Harper (JULIE BOWEN), to his home to find out what's wrong and get him to return to work without suing the company.

Realizing he must stand up for himself, Joe announces he's going to beat up Mark, a proclamation that suddenly makes him quite popular with his coworkers. The only problem is, Mark's a big guy, so Joe begins taking lessons from martial arts instructor and former "B" movie actor, Chuck Scarett (JIM BELUSHI), so that he has a fighting chance in their upcoming "rematch."

With just three weeks before the fight, and while enjoying his newfound popularity and fame, Joe tries to learn what he must to take on Mark, all while Callie and Natalie become disheartened with how Joe has changed.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In the annals of childhood life, there are many common elements that transcend generational differences. One of them is the presence of bullies. Whether in school or one's neighborhood, there have and always will be bullies, those they pick on, and the rest who witness such behavior.

Thus, and no matter one's age, most everyone can associate with movies about or featuring bullies, even if nearly all of them deal with kids. After all, adults who harass, threaten, steal money or beat up other adults are usually referred to as criminals and dealt with accordingly.

Nevertheless, and particularly when it comes to comedies, that hasn't deterred filmmakers from using such material or characters in pictures such as "Big Bully" or "The Waterboy." Now, "Joe Somebody," the tale of a nobody who becomes a somebody when he stands up to the bully at work, joins the list.

Re-teaming star Tim Allen with director John Pasquin for the third time after their comedies "Jungle2Jungle" and "The Santa Claus," the film is about as formulaic as they come and rather flat at that. A purported family comedy, the film is surprisingly listless and empty when it comes to humorous material, and what is present is bound only to elicit a chuckle or two rather than any sort of hearty or sustained laughter.

First time screenwriter John Scott Shepherd doesn't take too many chances with the script - comedic or otherwise - resulting in that flat feeling. Essentially a modified version of "The Karate Kid," the film's comedy stems from the various martial arts training sequences where the protagonist reacts in a predictable fashion to not knowing what to do. It's material you've probably seen countless times before, but most of it, as well as Allen's other physical mishaps, simply miss the mark most of the time here.

Any such film - be it a comedy or drama - is only as good as the principals involved, which are namely the bully, the victim, and those who help the latter deal with the former. Here, only one of those "assistants" is worth our time or interest.

He's Chuck Scarett, nicely played by Jim Belushi ("Return to Me," "Gang Related") as something of a combination of Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi and most any American "B" movie martial arts "star." Given the film's best, if limited material and lines, and coming off as the most engaging character, Belushi obviously has fun with the role and smartly underplays most of it.

Unfortunately, neither the hero nor the bully - or those who play them - match up. As the picked upon protagonist, Tim Allen ("Galaxy Quest," "For Richer or Poorer") does his normal shtick in trying to create a likable and sympathetic chap. While his performance is by no means horrible, it's rather flat and uninspired, not to mention more of the same old, same old Allen routine. That, and the fact that the character is drawn with broad, predictable strokes means he isn't likely to have many viewers cheering him on and/or being concerned about his well-being.

Part of that stems from the way the bully has been fashioned. Proving once again that the hero -- and thus our interest in him or her -- is only as good as the villain, the way in which the latter is conceived here limits Allen's character and our response to him.

As played by Patrick Warburton ("The Dish," TV's "Seinfeld"), the bully is appropriately gruff and physically intimidating. Yet, there's not enough of a buildup of just how mean and/or bad he truly is (he's really just a limited caricature of the real thing) beyond the initial encounter and certainly not enough subsequent interaction between him and Joe to build up any sort of comedic or dramatic suspense.

Some may argue that the film is more about Joe's growth as a person and his relationship with others - namely his family and a pretty coworker - than with repeated run-ins leading up to the culminate showdown.

While that may have been the intention or at least part of it, the execution of that material is also rather flat. Kelly Lynch ("Charlie's Angles," "Heaven's Prisoners") and Hayden Panettiere ("The Affair of the Necklace," "Remember the Titans") appear as his wife and precocious daughter respectively, but can't do much with their predictable roles, especially when Panettiere's character inexplicably disappears for much of the film's second half.

Her time, of course, has been allotted to Julie Bowen ("An American Werewolf in Paris," TV's "Ed") as the would-be girlfriend who also doesn't stray far from the norm for such a character in a picture like this (meaning she likes and decides to help him, and begins to fall for him, but then doesn't like what he's become). The chemistry between her and Allen's character doesn't exactly boil over onto the screen, thus robbing the viewer of yet another opportunity to root for something in the film.

Overall, if you're a big Tim Allen fan, you might enjoy - to some degree - what's offered here. Otherwise, those looking for lots of laughs or at least an engaging or entertaining picture might walk away rather disappointed. Rather than eventually turning into something like its title character, "Joe Somebody" never transcends its rather flat, bland and innocuous state, and thus rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed December 16, 2001 / Posted December 21, 2001

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