The team of thesp Tim Allen and helmer John Pasquin reunite for a third round of box office alchemy in the pleasant “Joe Somebody.” Cleverly positioned just two days after “The Lord of the Rings'” opening, this benign, PG-rated venture should serve as ideal counter-programming for parents of younger children and families seeking to avoid long “Rings” lines. While the sheer glut of holiday product seems sure to keep “Joe’s” grosses closer to those of 1997’s “Jungle 2 Jungle” than to 1994’s “The Santa Clause” (which remains Allen’s highest-grossing live action pic), Fox can expect a comfortable ride through the holiday season with this agreeably commercial attraction.
Allen’s Joe Scheffer is a divorced, middle-management shlub stuck in a dead-end job at a large pharmaceuticals company, making corporate videos promoting the latest wonder drugs (with a heart-stopping list of side-effects). It’s one of those unsatisfying, drone-type jobs, and the joke is that Joe is so far enmeshed in this Orwellian anonymity, he barely has time to feel sorry for himself. But when a bully co-worker (Patrick Warburton) humiliates Joe in front of his own daughter (Hayden Panettiere), Joe becomes a man on a mission: to kick butt.
Joe enlists the aid of a stoned karate sensei (a very funny Jim Belushi, eerily resembling Oliver Stone). After the obligatory montages of Joe “getting tough,” the people in Joe’s life start to see him differently and he becomes something of a star at the office. Actually, they’re seeing him for the first time, with the exception of Joe’s daughter and his beautiful co-worker, Meg (Julie Bowen), who didn’t much mind him the way that he was.
On its own, John Scott Shepherd’s script is pretty formulaic stuff: bland self-empowerment tinged with warm fuzzies in all the right places. But what makes this “Somebody” something is Pasquin’s deft touch and understanding with the material.
The director really “gets” middlebrow-ness, setting his “Joe Somebody” against an antiseptic suburbia in which everything from the sprawling, Microsoft-esque “campus” where Joe works to the fortress-like middle school his daughter attends is an icy prefabrication trying to seem homey. He understands Joe’s desire to be “just one of the guys,” and he’s sharp on showing how the earliest schoolyard distinctions between the cool and uncool kids carry over into the business world. Playing squash at the company gym and singing karaoke in a popular bar benefit Joe both professionally and personally, because in this environment, where most everyone strives to be like everyone else, the more you aspire to be average, the more successful you are.
In another movie, Joe would ultimately have to choose between his two selves. The point would be that, while playing the popular jock was fun for a while, that’s just not who he is. And to satisfy the fairy-tale schematic, Joe would finally put on his unproduced play or get back together with his ex (Kelly Lynch), who suddenly finds him sexy again, because he proved he could be everything he wasn’t when they were together.
Thankfully, Pasquin is smarter and world-wearier than that, keeping things grounded in reality and asking us to make up our own minds about what’s right for Joe Scheffer. He also gets the best out of Allen, whose lazy, summery presence is pic’s winningest asset. As in “The Santa Clause,” Allen seems to personify “relaxing into character”; watching him puts you at ease.
Ultimately, Pasquin switches to autopilot mode. He rolls out the expected pacifist message, about how fighting doesn’t solve anything and how Joe can now assert himself without raising his fists (though he does tussle in one scene, because the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too). And, in the final, needlessly sentimental moments, George S. Clinton’s score swells into such a treacly torrent, you have to hold on to your seat to avoid being washed away. But by this point, not unlike its own protagonist, “Joe Somebody” has briefly risen above the crowd in a way we had no reason to expect.