Kevin James in Becky

Kevin James plays a neo-Nazi in home invasion thriller Becky

Unfortunately the Mall Cop comedian isn’t given much more to do than yell, glower and break shit.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is such a thing as “no bad actors.” Acting is clearly a skill that can be shaped, refined and perfected, and not everyone has that in them inherently. It’s like being able to keep time enough to play a musical instrument — you can come close enough to it, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I will say, however, that I believe no one who acts consistently for a living is incapable of giving a good performance. There are actors who are generally derided as wooden or inexpressive in most of their performances who have been employed to their advantage in the past, just like actors who almost always hit it out of the park sometimes slip up. I would think, in that sense, that most people consider Kevin James to be a “bad actor” mainly because he has been almost exclusively cast in the same role in movies that have almost exclusively been dogshit. What I’m basically trying to say is that just because Kevin James has mostly been bad in movies that have almost always been bad does not automatically make him a bad actor, something that is made very clear in Becky, a movie whose chief concern seems to be to prove that James has chops.

It’s not exactly unheard of. Of all the major (male) sitcom stars and comedic A-listers, James is just about the only one that has never taken on a purely dramatic role (unless you count a supporting term in a faith-based movie called Little Boy, which, why would you?), a fact that became increasingly obvious when he launched a YouTube page filled with short films showing off his dramatic chops. All this to say that the stunt casting of Kevin James as a murderous prison escapee with a swastika adorning his bald pate is not nearly as much of a wild swing as it would’ve been in the heyday of The King of Queens, but it does prove to be the chief quality in what is otherwise a half-assed attempt to bring spurting gore to the premise of Home Alone.

Becky (Lulu Wilson) is a sullen teenager who has been acting out consistently ever since the death of her mother. She’s particularly hurt that her father (Joel McHale) has moved on to another woman (Amanda Brugel) and considered selling the lake house that was so central to her relationship with her mother. Becky and her dad drive out to the lake house, where he informs her of what he considers to be two bits of good news: he won’t be selling the lake house after all, and he and Kayla are getting married. This sends Becky into an apoplectic rage. While she’s out sulking in the woods, however, her family is accosted by Dominick (James) and his men, a quartet of prison escapees who have made their way to the lake house to find a key that Dominick needs in order to further the spread of white supremacy (or something — as far as MacGuffins go, this is a particularly throwaway one).

Lulu Wilson Becky Kevin James
Lulu Wilson in Becky

Becky makes it clear from the get-go that none of its elements are going to be particularly groundbreaking. Nothing in the narrative goes deeper than the surface, from the relationship between Becky and her dad to the very reasons why Dominick is going through all this trouble. Everything is cursory and skin-deep, an excuse for the film to hurtle towards the gory home-invasion setpieces it so clearly has its heart set on. I’m all for economy of purpose, especially in genre films like this one, but Becky’s storytelling is less economical and more obligatory. It doesn’t feel earned and it doesn’t feel necessary; it just feels like busywork the film has to get out of the way in order to be everyone’s definition of the film. It’s certainly not to the film’s advantage that everything is so generic, from the flashbacks to the mother dying of cancer to the obligatory weirdly ominous speeches that Dominick spouts in between gory maimings. None of it feels remotely lived-in; Becky retains almost all of the artifice that comes with its logline.

Truth be told, none of it is James’s fault. While a significantly less meaty part that what some of his comedic brethren have been handed in the past, the part of Dominick is a reasonably compelling heavy in theory. In practice, however, James isn’t given much more to do than yell, glower and break shit. It’s a convincingly chameleonic performance in the sense that one almost immediately forgets about Paul Blart: Mall Cop when James whips his shirt off and thumps his tattoo-covered chest for the sake of brotherhood; it’s not a particularly enriching performance when you consider that the role in no way requires any of the qualities that are inherent to James as a performer. There’s little point, I think, to stunt-casting like this if the role could be played by any bald guy from some TV show, be it Dean Norris or Domenick Lombardozzi or whoever else you might have in mind. (The role was originally intended for Simon Pegg who, unlike James, seems to be desperately seeking to shatter his image in VOD-bound projects of ill repute.)

Given that much of Becky is surface-level, it stands to reason that most of its thrills are also surface-level. On that end, at least, the film delivers. Its kills are brutal and gory and satisfying in a base way, and the filmmakers seem to have saved most of the inventiveness they didn’t apply to the standard-issue set-up to making sure that blood at least squirts real good. There’s also a palpable — if ill-defined — desire to make the character of Becky into an icon of girl power and self-actualization, which pays off about half the time. The other half of the time, she seems truly unhinged in a way that makes it unclear who we’re supposed to be rooting for at all. I suppose that kind of balance would be more welcome in a movie that wasn’t so tossed off in other regards.

Watching Becky in the comfort of my own home after months of self-isolation also thoroughly drove home the idea that movies like this are made almost exclusively with the festival premiere in mind — designed rigidly to have audiences cheer and whoop at its cathartic carnage. Of course, that changes nothing about the quality of the film, which most of us would never even see in a festival setting anyway, but it does seem like a shame to witness that Becky has been robbed of the one place where the film — and Kevin James — were sure to shine. As far as calling cards go, Becky is no Punch Drunk Love, but maybe it’s enough to convince someone else that Kevin James has chops. ■

Becky is on VOD as of Friday, June 5. Watch the trailer here:

(Kevin James plays a neo-Nazi in home invasion thriller Becky)

See more details about Becky here.

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