Kevin James might be America's laziest successful person.
Throughout his career, he has played variations on exactly one character: a man-child simpleton who falls down a lot. He perfected the type over nine years on The King of Queens, made it into an immensely profitable film franchise with Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and now he's back doing it again on Kevin Can Wait, a stultifying sitcom that's more or less The King of Queens again. James plays a retired cop instead of a deliveryman, he's on Massapequa, Long Island, instead of Queens, and Jerry Stiller isn't there, but other than that, it's the same "immature slob with hot, nagging wife" formula that's been an off-the-shelf sitcom premise for even longer than the almost 20 years that James has been doing it.
But here's the thing: no matter how underwhelming the project is, Kevin James himself is always pretty good. He couldn't have sustained a career for this long if he wasn't great at what he does. He's effortlessly charming and likable, has an uncanny knack for comic timing and is an exceptional physical comedian. Pratfalls may not be respected by comedy snobs, but they're not easy. And Kevin James is better at them than anyone since Chris Farley.
Kevin James' projects try for "good enough." But with the right material and the motivation to push himself creatively, James has the talent to make something great.
He would do well to take a cue from his friend and Happy Madison benefactor Adam Sandler. Sandler has made a lot of garbage throughout his career, but he's also challenged himself artistically in a way James has never attempted.
In 2002, Sandler starred in Punch-Drunk Love, a surreal romantic comedy directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose next movie would be There Will Be Blood, the best American film of the century so far. In Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler didn't play against type, but he put a darker, more complex spin on his angry idiot man-boy persona. Then in 2009, Sandler essentially played himself in Judd Apatow's Funny People, where he was George Simmons, the world-weary star of terrible, suspiciously Sandler-like movies. In both of these movies, Sandler showed a willingness to play with his persona, plumbing deeper emotions under the guidance of directors who pushed him to be better. The experiments paid off creatively, resulting in the only two both critically well-received and memorable movies of Sandler's career.
Since Funny People, Adam Sandler has not tried to make another good movie, but that leaves an opening in the Happy Madison universe for a Kevin James renaissance. James, like Sandler, has a distinctive persona he could subversively play off. He's capable of great acting: he has an expressive face, a certain childlike vulnerability, and of course his impressive physicality. And let's not forget his first movie starring role, Hitch, where he was funny and vulnerable and charming. It showed potential he has not fulfilled or even really followed up on. Not coincidentally, it was also one of the few times he's worked outside of the Happy Madison bubble.
I believe that he could use his considerable talent in an emotionally resonant way like Sandler did in Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People. I would love to see him take on a starring role in an indie movie from someone like Robert D. Siegel, who gave James' King of Queens co-star Patton Oswalt his first dramatic starring role in Big Fan and plumbed the depths of the sadness of the performer in his screenplay for The Wrestler. James' blue-collar schmo persona could easily be transposed into a more meaningful context than another lame slapstick comedy. He wouldn't even have to leave Long Island if someone were to adapt the classic This American Life episode about the Jeep dealership in Levittown into a Glengarry Glen Ross-like dramedy for him.
Or he could go a route like another friend of his, Ray Romano, who in the years since Everybody Loves Raymond has become a character actor on shows like Parenthood and Vinyl that are departures from his signature role but still make use of his core Raymond-ness.
Neither of these would be lucrative compared to another Paul Blart movie, but they don't have to be overly taxing if he doesn't want to break his back either. Many stars choose to do limited series or movies for prestige roles because they don't require as much time as a network series. These roles are not about the money — Punch-Drunk Love struggled to break even — but go a long way toward securing a legacy.
Maybe Kevin James only cares about entertaining the masses (optimistically) or money (cynically), and truly has no interest in pushing himself artistically. That would make him unique amongst his peers, and not in a good way. It's not like a comedian going serious is unprecedented or even unexpected. In fact, it would be more surprising if he went his whole career without trying it. Even Andrew Dice Clay was in a Woody Allen movie.
His next movie, True Memoirs of an International Assassin, is a step in the right direction in that it's something he hasn't done before. The Netflix-exclusive action-comedy finds him going all Die Hard for the first time in his career. It won't be good, but at least it gets him outside of his comfort zone to a degree. And despite how negative I was about it earlier, Kevin Can Wait isn't even that bad. It's occasionally genuinely funny, and James is charming even when he's not trying very hard.
Kevin James is fine, and will continue to be fine. But it's time he aimed a little higher than fine.
Kevin Can Wait airs Mondays at 8/7c on CBS.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)