If you've ever been a member of a studio audience, you've learned it's different from watching a show from the comfort of your couch. You're exhorted to watch and engage actively, to laugh hard and long at anything you find even remotely funny. David Letterman famously kept his studio at a chilly 55 degrees to encourage maximum attention from the audience.
LeBron James' renown as a basketball player is, in effect, its own studio-audience situation: When we're watching him "act" – as we are in the Judd Apatow-directed, Amy Schumer-penned Trainwreck, opening Friday – we're doing it with the added weight of his on-court fame, and a healthy dose of our feelings about him as such. It's an active, awkward watching that frustrates attempts to evaluate it objectively. Can LeBron James act? Is he funny?
Since Jordan, since Kareem in Airplane!, probably since some Neanderthal who could put a spear through a giant elk's eye at 100 paces made a so-so cave painting, there's a been a tacit demand for people who excel in sports to branch out into entertainment. The Jordan comparison is the most apt for James: Not only has his on-court career been freighted with the burden of living up to Jordan's, but rumors of James' possible involvement in a Space Jam sequel only amped our expectations for him to be an all-singing, all-dancing brand in the mold of the Mighty MJ.
Kobe Bryant might eerily mirror Jordan's brand of basketball, but his attempts to expand his appeal with guest spots on Hang Time or rap albums fell flat, and so he settled into his role as unfeeling basketball cyborg. But James has displayed enough humor and charisma in his thespian forays to generally clear the low bar set for acting athletes, or at least live up to Jordan's hardly Oscar-worthy work in Space Jam.
When his commercials have not been stark black-and-white dramas with messianic overtones, they've occasionally tried to be tongue-in-cheek. His early series of ads featuring The LeBrons split him into four characters – rather matter-of-factly named Wise, Business, Kid and Athlete – in an oddly prescient nod to the multiple roles that are demanded of superstar athletes.
But of course it couldn't just stop with a series of irreverent ads. The LeBrons concept became an uplifting cartoon, complete with G.I. Joe-style, "Knowing is half the battle" lessons explained in detail by LeBron himself. The weird part is that after starting life as essentially a normal-looking cartoon, it morphed into something that looked like a Sims machinima:
Did that make it funny? Not particularly. James' "family" was also featured prominently in the (so-so) opening monologue to his (so-far) only stint hosting Saturday Night Live in 2007, but he fared much better on the show in a "Read to Achieve" sketch, where he plays Jason Sudeikis one-on-one, and in a mostly wordless performance as a Solid Gold dancer:
That sketch in particular also showed James discovering the key to comedic success: Self-awareness. He was not only acknowledging his public image – the bruising basketball star – he was turning it on its ear, playing it up for laughs (Dwight Howard is incapable of doing this). Of course, following the imbroglio of "The Decision," James tamped down the levity a bit, maybe with a sense that any attempt at self-deprecation was going to come off as disingenuous or compensatory. But if his role in Trainwreck is any indication, his return to Cleveland may have taken the protective sleeve off his funny bone.
In the movie, James plays himself, which is different from being himself in commercials or on the court. As such, he's LeBron, but twisted a bit, a depiction that at once amplifies our shared perception of him and pokes holes in it. Sports physician Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) is one of his closest friends, and James needles him about not coming to Cleveland.
"You used to come to visit me in Miami all the time," he says.
"That's Miami," Conners shoots back.
"What's the difference between Miami and Cleveland? It's the same," James deadpans.
After a two-second pause, Conners agrees over-eagerly: "You're right, it's the same."
It plays effectively off of both James' decision to pursue the glamor of Miami in 2010 and the semi-provincial rah-rah-ing he did in announcing his return to Cleveland. The two other best bits are a running gag that he's a cheapskate in spite of his wealth and when he twice tries to liken Conners' relationship troubles to his own playing career, to which Conners replies that neither of those things are anything like his life.
On a Meta level, the latter joke cuts interestingly at the way fans and followers of sports often try to link their own struggles to the ritualistic, highly structured hurdles that teams have to conquer in a season. We strive to make their colossal accomplishments match our own feeble ones. Or is it that we're trying to make our own very real problems fit into the surreal, storybook templates we impose on professional sports? Either way, it's a funny bit.
To that end, when LeBron is onscreen in Trainwreck, the film takes the opportunity to skewer some of our notions about pro athletes, and it's largely successful – one ill-fitting scene with cameos from Chris Evert, Marv Albert and Matthew Broderick aside. The first half of the movie spends a decent amount of time getting us to invest in the relationship between Conners and James, but, as is typical for any rom-com, once the initial trepidation between Conners and Amy Townsend (Schumer) is overcome, something needs to get in the way in order for them to form a lasting relationship. Naturally, it's work; in this case, a late-night fight between Townsend and Conners puts an important surgery in jeopardy.
The player who needs the surgery, though, is not LeBron James, which would have kept the story tight, contained and resonating back on itself in a classically balanced way. Instead, it's Amar'e Stoudemire, who only appears halfway into the movie and actually knows a thing or two about knee problems. My bet? Whether it was Schumer and Apatow not wanting to give James a serious injury or James refusing to accept having even a fictional one – consider the repercussions if he had a serious fake injury and then suffered a real one next season – some part of James' real-life career got in the way of making the movie better from a storytelling perspective.
But nitpicking aside, the writing Schumer has done for LeBron is top-notch overall and – in spite of the soft bigotry of low expectations – he delivers some of the film's biggest rewards. The few moments that call on James to express an emotion other than enthusiasm are a little weak, but his deadpan game is strong. In short, can LeBron act? No, not really. But is he funny? Yeah, he actually is. Surround him with a solid supporting cast, and it seems anything's possible. Don't give up hope just yet, Cleveland.