The heavier-than-usual dose of sports-related news—care of the Olympics, of course—has gotten me in the mood for sports movies. I’ve been trying to avoid sports pictures with the trite victorious ending, where the team predictably wins the World Series or the Super Bowl. We discussed clichés some weeks ago. Too many sports films deal with a team or an athlete that surmounts “insurmountable” odds to get the gold. Moneyball was refreshing in that regard—the Athletics did not reach the World Series. It was, as sports films go, was relatively modest. And there is an Olympics-themed film consistent with this: a 2007 comedy picture called The Hammer.
The Hammer was written by Adam Carolla and his close associate Kevin Hench. It is, for all intents and purposes, an autobiographical film; Carolla has called it “semi-autobiographical,” in as much as most of the events within never took place, but those who have a basic idea of Carolla’s history will recognize that he is essentially playing himself here. It stars Carolla (of Loveline, The Man Show, and Crank Yankers fame) as Jerry Ferro, a washed-up forty-year-old boxer that works construction and teaches a few boxing classes on the side at a gym in Los Angeles. He strikes up a relationship with one of the boxing novices, public defender Lindsay Pratt (Heather Juergensen), and he also happens to be spotted by a coach who is piecing together the U.S. boxing team for the Beijing Olympiad (boxing at the Olympics is restricted to amateur athletes). Lindsay pushes Jerry to try out for the Olympics, and Jerry begins working out, looking for one last shot at fame. Jerry’s life closely parallels the famous comedian’s. Carolla was also working construction as a carpenter, and he was also a boxing instructor—though, naturally, Carolla eventually made his way into comedy and never tried out for the Olympics. Most tellingly, all of Carolla’s trademark eccentricities manifest themselves in Ferro. His observational humor comes through in full force—perhaps the film’s best sequence is when he and Lindsay go on a date to see the La Brea Tar Pits, which sends Jerry into an extended rant about Los Angeles—and he spends a good portion of the film talking construction, descend into incomprehensible carpenter-speak about T1-11 and wedge anchors and J-bolts and rotary hammers.
Carolla’s performance is effortless—he is so much like his character, after all—and it’s often unclear whether he is acting as his character or simply playing as himself. Though in some scenes he competently separates himself from Ferro, more often he presents us with vanilla Adam Carolla. The scene at the Tar Pits, though conducted quite brilliantly, is essentially the same Carolla you’ll find on The Man Show or on episodes of Loveline. We are presented with something of a fix, then, for conventional wisdom suggests that actors who play themselves are, in some way, deficient—it’s a criticism that’s common of Bruce Willis given the various Die Hard knockoffs he appears in on an almost yearly basis. It appears that Willis has decided upon a set style of acting, and he rarely deviates from it, regardless of the character he might be playing. There are other actors who have fallen into similar traps.
But Carolla avoids that stigma with The Hammer. His performance does not come off as lazy, devoid of any attempt at acting; rather, The Hammer almost feels like a reenactment of sorts, not unlike a documentary. That’s not a perfect analogy, but there’s enough of Carolla in the character of Jerry for us to recognize that Jerry is little more than a doppelganger. The man and the character are interchangeable, and though the demarcation can be noticeable at certain times, it never reaches the stage where it’s jarring or damaging to the integrity of the film. We can credit this success to the film’s autobiographical nature, but it’s also due to the actual content within. The Hammer is more commentary than it is a relation of facts about a person’s life; that is, we’re led to think more about what motivates the characters and why they behave in a certain way rather than the events we’re watching. Sure, Jerry is trying out for the Olympics, but it never really sinks in, and it never really feels that critical. More important to us is whether Jerry will find fulfillment and whether he’ll be able to dig his life out of the rut it dropped into.
In that way, the slight dilution of the Ferro character doesn’t affect the film all that much. In fact, it may even be a sum positive, and there are in fact some scenes in which it is visibly beneficial. In one instance, Jerry goes to a hardware store to assemble the necessary components for building a deck (the short scene is included below). He strikes up a conversation with a lesbian couple while waiting in the checkout line, and quickly begins a sort of carpentry trivia match with one of the women, played by Jane Lynch, who apparently is some sort of construction savant. Lynch ends up getting the best of Jerry. Jerry has been built up as a superb carpenter, so it’s amusing to see him fold to an unexpected foe, but the scene also works on a higher level. Carolla himself is a master carpenter who spent time on his old radio shows and on The Man Show dispensing carpentry advice. Being a handyman is part of his public identity, and it’s enjoyable to see a confrontational type like Carolla meet his match. It is, of course, a bit of self-flagellation, and it continues elsewhere; Jerry is chronically lazy, a trait that Carolla has criticized himself for, and there are several short sequences where Jerry is seen simply bouncing a tennis ball against the wall. One supposes he had nothing better to do.
The unusual mix of autobiography, legitimate introspection and self-criticism aside, most people would look at The Hammer on its face and term it a sports film. But what I find most noteworthy about the picture is that it shares more with the romantic comedy genre, and would be better classified as a rom-com than a reflection of boxing. The boxing subplot is outdone by Jerry and Lindsay’s blossoming relationship, and their story is much more compelling than Jerry’s ability to flatten men in the ring. The film scores most of its points when Jerry and Lindsay are onscreen together; Carolla is at his best then, like in the aforementioned Tar Pits scene, and the two have a snappy and enjoyable rapport. The story is simple and predictable, but it is incredibly charming, mostly because of Jerry’s devastatingly poor background—we are desperate for him to succeed and we devastated when he comes close to giving it all up simply because he can’t be bothered burning the necessary calories.
One gets the feeling that, given the budget and the access to big names, Carolla and his writing partner Hench could put together a top-notch mainstream romantic comedy. Here they deliver a small indie film, one that was made for under a million dollars, but one that quietly surpasses expectations. Its success lies with its autobiographical aspects. It feels honest—that’s a quality that most commercial romantic comedies lack, and we don’t seem to notice it missing from movies until we see a picture like this. There’s no voluptuous, outlandishly joyous ending here. There’s no spectacular sporting victory. Jerry doesn’t make it all the way. He gets his contractor’s license and goes back to the construction site; Lindsay still works her humble job as a public defender. But they are together, and it is a pure and happy ending, as legitimate a happy ending as you will ever find. Carolla is known as an extravagant personality—here he managed to provide a restrained, lovely little film.