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James Corden’s first chance to become an American movie star precedes his big American TV debut

To be honest, James Corden is not about to become a household word in America. It’s just not in the cards.

But his name is, for certain, about to leave the relative American obscurity it’s been in over here. That’s because on Monday the 23rd, the British chat show charmer will take over for Craig Ferguson to be the pudgy, charming host of CBS’ “The Late, Late Show.”

You can bet your Aunt Betty’s Petunias that it’s no accident that Corden’s lovable starring role in “One Chance” is opening this weekend, just before his official accession into network late-night contention. The movie is so much a lovable product of television at its sweetest and friendliest that you could almost call it TV by other means – specifically Reality TV, of the talent competition variety.

“One Chance” is like a 101-minute, tear-yanking amplification of those preshot biographical “packages” you see about reality TV contestants: the “Dancing With the Stars” contestant, for instance, who dances despite legs amputated below the knee or the “America’s Got Talent” contestant whose family has rejected him for being gay. In this one, though, Corden plays a major figure in British reality TV history – Paul Potts, the car phone salesman from Wales who was in love with opera from the age of 9 and, after of life of unsuccessful feints in grand opera’s direction, cleaned up as the first winner of “Britain’s Got Talent.”

The prize was 100,000 pounds and a best-selling album and a performance for the Queen followed. And now, the almost-obligatory movie, starring a lovable little fellow who’s about to get the major personality push in American media.

It’s directed by David Frankel, the son of the former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel, whose previous film “The Devil Wears Prada” might have led us to expect his next foray into media mythology would be on a much higher level of sophistication than this.

No matter. It’s genuinely sweet and heart-tugging and so dedicated to Potts’ “One Chance” at fulfilling his lifelong dream that you’ll have no difficulty with the simple-mindedness that it wears on its sleeve. Whether or not you buy the modern notion that fame is the perfect antidote to a childhood of being bullied and misunderstood is up to you. If you ask me, we’re putting far too much faith in fame everywhere in 21st century Western civilization to remedy society’s ills.

We need to start telling ourselves some new stories. But then, read the ancient historians sometime and you encounter how very long in human history “fame” has seemed the answer to almost everything.

So we’re watching the tale of Paul Potts, the opera-mad, would-be tenor whose childhood desire to be Luciano Pavarotti doesn’t do him a bit of good with the chief neighborhood thug who loves to beat up the singing neighborhood fatso. That Dad (the estimable Colm Meaney) is an unsympathetic steelworker doesn’t help matters either. (“Billy Elliott” anyone? Echoes of that film are all through this one.)

His only ally in his childhood is his Mum (Julie Walters) whose hearing is good enough to recognize that her eccentric son has a rather beautiful voice.

Hate to question the yarn here too closely but we’re talking about a kid who grew up in Wales. And by reputation, I’d always heard that Wales is a place where male singers are taken seriously. I’m not saying they were never bullied there, mind you, only that Potts probably had in life a few more allies than he does in this movie.

His biggest ally, we discover soon enough, isn’t Mum but rather his Internet girlfriend, who thinks it’s just dandy that the boy she texts all the time wants to sing opera, even though she’s never heard his voice. They finally meet and ever-so-shyly-and-chastely fall in love. (Not to put too fine a point on it, nothing big happens until their wedding night. Old school, you know? Really old school.)

What follows is a bumpy life indeed: a sojourn to Venice to fulfill his ambition to sing opera that is, of all people, squashed by Pavarotti when nerves overwhelm his crucial audition. An opera back home in Wales offers itself, but an accident and a collision with cancer knock that over.

In the meantime, he develops a cadre of believers outside his hardworking wife, Julz (Alexandra Roach). His superior in the car phone store is a would-be stand-up comic of no talent. His own hopeless ambitions, though, make him a loyal friend to Potts who really can sing if he can only get his act together and find a spot where the stars are aligned on his side.

Which leads to “Britain’s Got Talent” and, yes, that’s the real Simon Cowell and the real Piers Morgan playing their real roles here.

Carefully note how close to TV this sentimental and archetypal underdog showbiz yarn really is. And then remember that a recent Oscar winning film was “Slumdog Millionaire.”

It used to be that major figures in the movie world were there to cast a very cold eye indeed on TV (see “Network,” and “A Face in the Crowd,” classics that they are).

Not anymore. These days, in our tearjerkers, TV and its offering of money and fame are there to answer the call when nice sweet boys need their lives straightened out.

Corden can’t help but be much bigger than his movie and rather soon too. His simple-hearted and simple-minded movie is, nevertheless, irresistible in its clumsy and minor way.


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