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Can Ken Jeong Carry a Movie on His Own?

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Jun 19, 2014 | 1:52pm EDT

The Hangover Part III, Ken JeongWarner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection

He’s been an eccentric gangster, a perpetually annoyed doctor, and a Spanish teacher-turned-student-desperate-for-friends-turned-power-hungry-cop-turned-enraged-dictator-turned… whatever Chang is these days, but Ken Jeong is about to tackle a brand new role: leading man. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the comic actor is attached to front International Incident, a film about five United Nations delegates who embark on a road trip in order to rediscover a lost love. Jeong is the first cast member to sign onto the project, which was penned by Daily Show writer David Javerbaum and will be produced through former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell.

Though he’s had major parts in both Community and The Hangover  trilogy, Jeong is still primarily known for being a supporting player. His characters tend to be over-the-top, unpredictable, and unstable, all of which are great in small doses, but exhausting in large quantities. The closest he has ever come to playing a straight man was his debut role in Knocked Up, in which he portrayed a rude, dismissive, and incredibly frustrated doctor who frequently insulted his patients. However, every comedy needs a straight man, and the lead usually fulfills that role.

We’ve never seen Jeong play a straightforward role; even when his characters start out normal, their quirks and eccentricities become more and more pronounced until they become caricatures of their former selves. With five lead characters, there are going to be plenty of outlandish personalities present in International Incident, which means Jeong would need to dial back the insanity in order to give the film a central focal point, or else the result is a bunch of weirdoes screaming at each other for two hours. It’s a role that requires restraint, which is a quality that Jeong has never really shown before.

Any time that Jeong’s characters have become the focal point of an episode or film, things tend to go off the rails, both in terms of plot and tone. The more screen time Chang got on Community, the more the episodes fell apart around him, and the more unhinged and ridiculous his character got, to the point where he staged a coup to take over Greendale – and that wasn’t even his most insane plot. The more time The Hangover  films spent on Chow, the more they became about outrageous stunts and shocking reveals, which lost the undercurrent of friendship that was more important to the first film. That doesn’t bode well for International Incident, which will need someone to anchor the comedy in some kind of reality.

If Jeong can manage to keep a lid on his trademark craziness, there’s a chance that he could be a likeable, funny and compelling leading man. But since we’ve yet to see him dial his performance back enough to let the jokes and the character shine, instead of the screaming, nudity and deranged facial expressions that have come to characterize his work, we’re a little skeptical about whether he’s ready to carry a whole film on his shoulders.

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