- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

"Joe Somebody" may need to overcome a ho-hum title that lends itself to misapprehensions of sappiness. Substantially better than it sounds, "Joe" is the latest comedy collaboration between Tim Allen and director John Pasquin, associated for years on the sitcom "Home Improvement." In 1994 they contrived a wistful and amusing transition to features in "The Santa Clause." It appears that they may have a certain comic specialty: restoring the morale of divorced and lovelorn dads.
Given the season, it comes as a modest surprise to discover that "Joe" doesn't exploit a Christmas angle. That in itself provides some useful separation from the holiday groaners of recent years: Nicolas Cage in "Family Man," Michael Keaton in "Jack Frost," Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Jingle All the Way."
Set in Minneapolis-St. Paul in what would appear to be a balmy autumn, the movie endeavors to improve the stagnating existence of nice guy Joe Scheffer, employed as a "video communications specialist" for Starke Pharmaceuticals.
The job has ceased to stimulate him, and Joe's timid good nature doesn't quite conceal wounds from an "amicable" breakup that limits his time with a precocious and affectionate adolescent daughter, Natalie (Hayden Panettiere).
Sharing custody of Natalie also keeps Joe painfully up to date on the fashionable allure of his ex-wife, Callie (Kelly Lynch), who runs a theater company and seems to be consorting with one of the sillier actors in town.
The turning point in Joe's slide into quiet desperation occurs when he drives Natalie to work for a "bring your daughter to the office" day and gets into a parking-space hassle with a belligerent co-worker named Mark McKinney, a thankless role as heavy for Patrick Warburton. Joe is slapped around as Natalie witnesses his humiliation.
A genuinely painful scene, true to the shock effect that such an encounter might have in real life, the slap-down drives Joe into shameful isolation for a couple of days. At the point when you fear the movie might become a masochistic wallow, it demonstrates admirable comic and sentimental resourcefulness.
For starters, the filmmakers seem to realize that Mark might have placed himself in professional jeopardy by bullying Joe. An executive creep played by Greg Germann of "Ally McBeal" is officially in charge of fretting about Joe's willingness to sue.
Named Jeremy, he has designs on an attractive colleague named Meg Harper (Julie Bowen) who supervises the firm's "wellness" programs and is assigned to baby-sit and soft-soap Joe through the aftermath.
"You're here to make people believe we care," Jeremy smugly reminds Meg at a crucial juncture, clarifying her inkling that the time may have come to seek a more satisfying job.
The filmmakers contrive to mock Joe's self-pity while he hides away at home to nurse a battered ego. The television set is turned on and seems to be tuned compulsively to Starke commercials, in which the wonders of some new pill are shadowed by the disclaimers, which tick off countless side effects.
This satirical touch couldn't be more timely, and it cues the recovery process. Joe's rebound is reinforced by a growing attachment to Meg and by his pursuit of some overdue self-defense aptitude, entrusted to a sarcastic mentor played by Jim Belushi, wonderful as a kind of gone-to-seed counterpart of Steven Seagal, a former action star named Chuck Scarett.
Mr. Belushi's character runs a martial-arts storefront in Minneapolis. From the look of things, Joe may be Chuck's only customer, but the workout scenes between pupil and instructor are reliably funny and gratifying. Obviously but also expertly, they're designed to culminate in the session when Joe can hold his own with Chuck.
Although Joe has announced his desire for a formal rematch with Mark, the filmmakers are astute enough to realize that the bout will be anticlimactic when fight day dawns, Joe having acquired measures of confidence and serenity that transcend the opportunity to humble his tormentor, who by that point seems thoroughly disgraced and demoralized.
As a matter of fact, the bully has sort of metamorphosed off-screen into a candidate for a new Pasquin-Allen movie about character redemption.
It's unfortunate the filmmakers don't quite make a clean break from petty vengeance during the finale, but they slip out of numerous cliched jams while rescuing Joe from the blues. For example, there's a sequence that promises to expose Joe as a pathetic jerk when he accepts an offer to play squash in the office sports facility. A stranger to the game, he appears strictly an object of ridicule while Mr. Allen overdoes a bit about warming up his swing.
Incredibly, the sequence is shifted in a ridiculously funny way. Mr. Pasquin telescopes the game into a farcical whirlwind that makes it possible to accept overmatched Joe as a gritty competitor and potential quick learner.
Mr. Pasquin also has an ability to concentrate on performers in attentive and flattering ways. It's a little surprising that he hasn't made faster inroads on the Rob Reiner or Nora Ephron or Penny Marshall franchises, which appear stale in comparison. The fact that Mr. Pasquin recognizes the neglected charm of Miss Bowen is a conspicuous virtue in my book.
She did a lot for Adam Sandler in "Happy Gilmore" and ought to emerge decisively in "Joe Somebody" as the most plausible and ingratiating alternative to Meg Ryan currently available to Hollywood humorists.
It's kind of fun that she's playing a character named Meg, because the warm but uncloying vibes generated by this fictional Meg tend to accentuate the personality differences in the actresses.
Anyway, Miss Bowen remains an underrated, low-vanity sweetheart, so far away from wearing out her welcome that "Joe Somebody" might be fondly mistaken for her breakthrough vehicle.

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