'Stranger Than Fiction'

This inordinately likable and consistently funny boxing saga-cum-romantic comedy doesn't so much ridicule the "Rocky"-type inspirational sports fable as gently deflate its heroic overdrive. "The Hammer" marks the improbable but fruitful collaboration between the producer-director-actress team of "Kissing Jessica Stein" and radio/TV personality Adam Carolla, along with his sometime-writer Kevin Hench.

This inordinately likable and consistently funny boxing saga-cum-romantic comedy doesn’t so much ridicule the “Rocky”-type inspirational sports fable as gently deflate its heroic overdrive. “The Hammer” marks the improbable but fruitful collaboration between the producer-director-actress team of “Kissing Jessica Stein” and radio/TV personality Adam Carolla, along with his sometime-writer Kevin Hench. Carolla’s gangling charm and improv rhythms nicely loosen up helmer Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s studied setups without ever deviating from the story’s solid underlying structure. A strong crowd-pleaser in its own unassuming small-pic way, requiring savvy handling, “Hammer” could nail an inside sleeper track.

Carolla plays Jerry Ferro, carpenter by day, Pasadena gym boxing instructor by night. On his 40th birthday, he loses his girlfriend through lack of ambition and his carpenter job through lack of patience with his boss’ verbal abuse. Jerry’s birthday also marks the start of a sparkling romantic relationship with one of his boxing students, Lindsay (Heather Juergensen, the woman who kissed, and wrote, “Jessica Stein”), a public defender with a wicked appreciation for Jerry’s laid-back wit.

A dedicated underachiever, Jerry has been kicking around since, at age 19, he abandoned his promising attempt to earn a spot on the Olympic boxing team. But opportunity beckons anew.

A knockdown during an impromptu sparring round brings Jerry to the attention of big-time boxing coach Eddie Bell (Tom Quinn). The coach offers Jerry another chance to train for the Olympics, alongside his two more promising hopefuls: sweet, earnestly religious lightweight Victor Padilla (Jonathan Hernandez) and light heavyweight Robert Brown (Harold House Moore), who is not the least enthralled with his geriatric whitebread competition. Jerry’s Sancho Panza-ish Nicaraguan sidekick, Ozzie (Oswaldo Castillo), tags along for the bumpily quixotic ride.

Carolla, who wrote pic’s story, was a Golden Glover (and a carpenter), and his solid grounding in the sport works less to lend gritty realism or slapstick plausibility to the many boxing scenes than to create a believable sense of solidarity among the three boxers.

Jerry’s age and experience allow him to see through the false competitiveness Coach Bell seeks to instill among the fighters to disguise his own manipulation of them.

Yet this authentic-seeming understanding of the boxing world never merely stands in as a simplistic metaphor for the triumph of the underdog; nor does it prevent pic from being outright funny on its own terms, thanks largely to Carolla’s dry impromptu humor and a steady stream of visual gags involving the rigors of training.

This anchoring in the real-life discipline of pugilism also proves, surprisingly, a good way to highlight pic’s romantic-comedy elements. Of course, it never hurts to bring together three writers who have longstanding prior associations: scripter Hench was head scribe of “Too Late With Adam Carolla” and is married to producer/star Juergensen.

Exchanges between Carolla and Juergensen certainly do not lack for chemistry, recalling the physicality and heightened sexual edge that informed helmer George Cukor’s “Pat and Mike,” that greatest of sports-themed romantic comedies. If Herman-Wurmfeld’s images lack Cukor’s kinetic condensation, at least they never interrupt the flow or heroically isolate a character against the backdrop of his greatness.

Tech credits are fluid and informal, and production values are suited to the story’s human-scale proportions.

The Hammer

Production

An Eden Wurmfeld Films, Bentley Film Group production. Produced by Eden Wurmfeld, Heather Juergensen, Eric Ganz. Executive producers, Adam Carolla, Steven Firestone, Gregory Firestone. Co-producer, Kevin Hench. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Screenplay, Kevin Hench, from a story by Adam Carolla.

Crew

Camera (color), Marco Fargnoli; editor, Rich Fox; music, John Swihart, Matt Mariano; music supervisor, Jennifer Ross; production designer, Mickey Siggins; costume designer, Abigail Nicto; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Zach Seivers; casting, Michael Hothorn. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Encounters), April 27, 2007. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Adam Carolla, Heather Juergensen, Oswaldo Castillo, Tom Quinn, Harold House Moore, Jonathan Hernandez.

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