It may be unfair to compare an actor who, in death, has been all but canonized to the star of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, but I'm here to do exactly that. At his most iconic, Robin Williams's warm, infectious spirit shone through in every single film of his, good or bad. When he died in the fall of 2014, we lost not only a singular talent, but also a specific type of actor: the everyman leading man. I see the same spirit in Kevin James, the bright, big-boned star who cut his teeth in stand-up before moving to TV (as star of the long-running CBS sitcom The King of Queens, which served as a successful small-screen coming-out showcase for his blue-collar charm) and eventually landed the dubious honour of playing second banana to Adam Sandler in unbearable "comedies" such as Grown Ups (2010) and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007). Like Williams, James is an eminently watchable actor. The difference? Unlike Williams, James chooses, almost without exception, unwatchable films. He could and should be a leading man, but he's not. Here's why.
Despite the critically maligned clunkers that litter his résumé, James seems to emerge unscathed, sometimes even lauded by critics, thanks to his undeniable charisma. Witness Manohla Dargis's savage take down in The New York Times of the Sandler-and-James-get-married-for-cheap-laughs I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which she called "sporadically funny, casually sexist, blithely racist and about as visually sophisticated as a parking-garage surveillance video." Dargis adds that the film "looks, sounds and moves like most Adam Sandler comedies." Despite the venom for the film (which is deplorable in its screaming discomfort with homosexuality in particular) James, here, escapes unscathed, even admired, with Dargis calling him "agreeable and sympathetic." It helps that James is cast as Larry, a widower with two young children. In fact, the actor is frequently positioned as a sad sack with a sense of humour, a nice guy with a heart of gold who's been dealt some tough blows. To still emerge as that character in a film as odious as Chuck & Larry, is to have charisma.
James has honed this charisma over years of doing stand-up. Like Williams, he dropped out of school in order to perform. (Williams from Julliard, where he studied drama, and James from SUNY Cortland, where he played football, which he now often does onscreen as well.) While Williams's stand-up was often manic and physical, James's was passive and droll, something that has changed as he's moved into film, where his hulking size is often played for laughs. These are usually cheap laughs: he falls in slow motion, he breaks a chair, he belly flops into a lake. Where Williams's whirling-dervish persona swept his audience along to laugh with him, James's pathetic characters make you feel like you're laughing at him.
One notable exception to this is James's first film: 2005's criminally underrated romantic comedy Hitch, in which James's sad-sack accountant hires a "date doctor" played by Will Smith. In one of the film's funniest scenes, the suave Smith teaches a clueless yet confident James how to dance. Here, again, James's charisma shines through, coupled with moves that make the viewer grin rather than guffaw. In a light film woven through with humour and heart, James shines as a funny, warm, charismatic presence, the beginnings of a big-screen leading man.
In Hitch, James (spoiler alert) gets the girl, played this time by supermodel Amber Valletta. Many of his films have him romancing high-stakes beauties such as Salma Hayek (2012's Here Comes the Boom). His humour and the twinkle in his eye make it plausible.
After that promising big-screen turn, I was charmed by James and left with eager anticipation for what he would do next. Unfortunately it was Chuck & Larry, kicking off a long-time creative partnership with Sandler, who, frankly, I think is to blame for a lot of James's problems.
Sandler, despite two significant blips in 2002's lauded Punch-Drunk Love and 2009's overlooked Funny People, is no leading man – he's simply built a constellation of actor friends who orbit around him, making him one. In that curated, morally-dubious, frat-boy universe, no one shines brighter than James. I hope he'll realize that soon and make a break for it.
Though, to be fair, James is also making strides for Hollywood success on his own terms, producing and writing his own material. Unfortunately, most of the output, including the Mall Cop franchise that puts him front and centre, mirrors that of Sandler: bloated comedies that are critically sniffed at, but make major bank. In 1999, The New York Times did a feature about Long Island comics, for which James was interviewed. "I don't know how to be Hollywood yet," he told writer Susan Konig. "Hopefully I never will." James might never be Clooney, but he could be Williams. It's just a question of whether he even wants to be.