Adam Carolla screams "average" to me. He's not quite handsome, not quite unattractive. He's not quite hilarious, not quite lame. He's not quite engaging, not quite grating. He's just ... average. So how the hell did the guy pull off such an above average little movie?

In The Hammer, Carolla plays Jerry Ferro, a once-promising amateur boxer. He's turning 40 and things are looking pretty bleak. His only friend (a very funny Oswaldo Castillo) barely speaks English. He's in an unsatisfying relationship. His construction career is going nowhere. And he just used a maxi pad as a coffee filter. (Don't ask.) When an old-school boxing coach (Tom Quinn) asks him to be the sparring partner for a cocky Olympic hopeful (Harold House Moore), Ferro figures he's got nothing to lose. Before you know it, Ferro's competitive spirit has returned, and he is training to return to the ring himself. p>
Nothing new there, I know. And if I tell you there's a romance along the way, I doubt you'll fall out of your seat in shock. But it's all in the telling, and The Hammer updates the Rocky story in a fresh, funny and often genuinely sweet way. Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein) makes sure all his actors shine, particularly his leads. He coaxes an amazingly natural and charming performance from Carolla, whom I never would have imagined had the charisma to carry a feature length movie. And love interest Heather Juergensen (Kissing Jessica Stein) plays beautifully off him -- their courtship is surprisingly affecting.

Kevin Hench wrote the screenplay (from a story by Carolla), and if Hollywood is smart they'll make him a go-to guy for punching up romantic comedies. The love story here is not an afterthought as it is in most male-driven romcoms. I felt like I was really watching two people fall for each other, and that's not an easy feat. One of the main reasons the love story succeeds is that Hench's script addresses the financial aspect of dating. When Carolla picks up his date in a beat-up truck and explains the tricks of opening the vehicle door and keeping it closed while driving (it involves a bungee cord), I felt a wonderful wave of recognition. Ten years ago, I was picking up dates in a 1982 Chevy Celebrity with a corduroy interior and a permanently lit "Check Engine" light. The embarrassment that comes along with not having the means to impress a date is the sort of thing everyone can relate to, and is too rarely explored in movies.

The pair has an outstanding scene at dinner where Juergensen, knowing her date's financial situation, reaches for the check at the same time as Carolla. They have a very funny discussion about the phenomenon of "Dutch treat" ("How cheap must the Dutch be that this is the only thing they're known for?"), Carolla assures her he's got enough to pay for the dinner, she relents, and he gives the waiter his credit card. And then he gives him a second credit card incase the first doesn't clear. It's the kind of perfect moment that makes you want to hug everyone involved with its creation.

I may be overselling here, the movie isn't a classic. Herman-Wurmfeld brings a visual style that makes Kevin Smith look like Terence Malick. The ending is rushed, and something of a letdown. The film is paced oddly, and includes a scene with Jane Lynch (generally one of my favorite character actresses) in a hardware store that screams -- SCREAMS -- to be edited out. (I'd say it should have been cut and placed on the DVD extras, but it's so unbelievably out of place, I can't believe it was even written for the film.)

And yet, The Hammer is one of the year's nicest surprises. What Carolla and the filmmakers pull off here is not unlike what Howard Stern did in the excellent Private Parts. You're forced to look at a guy you thought you had figured out in a whole new light. It's a terrific little boxing movie, and it's one hell of a charming romantic comedy. Guys may drag dates to it for the fighting and Carolla, but the ladies may come away loving it even more. It was made for roughly one sixtieth the budget of Fool's Gold, it will make roughly one sixtieth the money of Fool's Gold, and it's roughly a million times better.

I'd imagine it's not going to be easy to find The Hammer at a theater near you. Even if it is playing nearby, I'd imagine you're not going to run out to see it in the week or two it's there. And if you don't put it in your Netflix queue right now, I'd imagine you won't remember that this movie exists in a couple weeks. So do yourself a favor. Write it down, remember it, and seek it out. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying the thing. It's hit and miss sure, but when it connects, The Hammer is a knockout.