Actor/comedian Kevin James is fairly new to Twitter and he might want to be careful when he reads about himself.
On the evening of Sept. 24, Twitter pretty much exploded when the Seattle Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football thanks to a disputed last-second touchdown call by the replacement referees. Among those criticizing the call and begging the NFL to bring back the regular referees, a few clever people suggested a movie: "The Replacement Refs."
There were several variations of the joke, but they all had one thing in common: Casting Kevin James in the lead role, paired with either Vince Vaughn or Adam Sandler.
When I told James about this Twitter joke, the actor admitted: "That's not a bad idea for a movie."
But the joke speaks to a problem James has: He's too easily identified with a certain type of low-expectation blue-collar comedy movies like "Zookeeper," "Grown Ups" (with Sandler), "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" (also with Sandler), "The Dilemma" (with Vaughn) and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
James is pushing that envelope, just a little, in his new movie, the comedy "Here Comes the Boom."
"In a way, this movie is a little bit of a shift," James said in a recent phone interview. "It's a slight shift, where you don't lose all your fans. But it's got some real substance to it."
In "Here Comes the Boom," James (who co-wrote the script) plays Scott Voss, a Boston high-school biology teacher who's largely going through the motions of educating his students. But when the school's budget problems hit a crisis point, and officials threaten to fire the school's beloved music teacher, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), Voss is determined to raise the money to save Marty's job. After struggling at first, Voss hits on a novel way to earn the money: fighting in mixed-martial-arts tournaments, encouraged by his friend Niko (played by former MMA champ Bas Rutten).
"It was such a passion project for me," James said. "I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted a little different tone, something that wasn't as goofy a comedy, like 'Mall Cop.' The teaching and the inspiration, I wanted that in there, and the reality of the fighting was important to me."
James has been an MMA fan since 1993. "When I first saw it, it was about the fighting," he said. "They were just like regular people, they weren't these gladiators. It was like a job for them."
James, who trained for more than a year before filming, even persuaded Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the marquee venue for MMA, to lend its name to the film, "and they'd never given out their name to anybody," James said. "They didn't want me to make a mockery of it. We told them it wasn't like 'Paul Blart.' We were going to make it look credible, as realistic as possible."
If Voss is out of his league in the MMA ring, it's arguable that James is also out of his league opposite his leading lady, Salma Hayek.
Hayek "was just perfect for this," James said, noting that they've worked together before (she played Sandler's wife in "Grown Ups") and "she's a really funny woman. I said, 'We gotta ugly her up.' I told wardrobe, I told makeup. [But] you can't ugly that woman up!"
It's an old double standard in Hollywood, which would never think of pairing, say, a hunk like Jon Hamm and plus-sized Melissa McCarthy in a romantic comedy but has no problem hooking James' characters up with beauties such as Rosario Dawson ("Zookeeper"), Maria Bello ("Grown Ups") or Leah Remini ("The King of Queens"). (The exception is the Will Smith comedy "Hitch," in which James' schlubby character romances supermodel Amber Valletta and the humor plays off the apparent mismatch.)
"I'm not Jon Hamm. I like ham," James joked.
But, he added, this is one case where art imitates life. "This is my universe my wife is absolutely beautiful," he said.
You can look her up: Steffiana De La Cruz. And the actress is beautiful. And, one hopes, she can talk James out of making "The Replacement Refs."
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form, at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket or on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.