LeBron James and Jason Statham Give Two of the Year's Funniest Performances in SXSW Comedies

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

Jude Law, Rose Byrne, and Jason Statham in Spy (Fox)

Trainwreck and Spy, two of the summer’s biggest potential hit comedies, debuted in succession over the weekend at the South By Southwest Festival. Both got ravenous applause, and both featured buzzworthy comedic turns from two guys you wouldn’t normally expect to draw big laughs: LeBron James and Jason Statham. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say both even steal their respective movies.

In Trainwreck, 30-year-old basketball superstar James plays himself — albeit a very comically exaggerated version of himself. You can get a taste of his performance in the Trainwreck trailer (see below), but it’s a fleeting look that doesn’t extend beyond a one-note joke: Hahaha, an NBA superstar loves Downton Abbey!

In fact, Judd Apatow’s comedy has been praised for not only its hilarity but its heart, and King James contributes both. He plays the concerned best friend of Aaron (Bill Hader), and though he means well, he gives terrible relationship advice, and grills Aaron’s new girlfriend Amy (Amy Schumer) on her “intentions” with him. He’s also a cheapskate — despite the fact that he’s filthy rich — and at one point gives an impassioned, wink-wink plea about how Cleveland and Miami both make attractive tourist destinations. James’ comedic timing and reactions are startlingly impressive, and it’s the most inspired performance we’ve seen from a professional baller since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showed up in the cockpit in Airplane!

Watch the trailer for Trainwreck:

Schumer included LeBron’s character in the script from the beginning, but as she and Apatow noted in an interview with Yahoo Movies, they were keeping their expectations at bay: “Amy wrote it in hoping we’d get somebody from the ABA ,” Apatow said, referring to the now-defunct basketball league. “Or [retired New York Knicks player] John Starks,” Schumer added.

Apatow described the role as “Bizarro Lebron James,” adding: “The main aspect of it was, ‘What if LeBron James is your friend, and was deeply interested in every aspect of your personal life?’ That really made me laugh, and once that idea of it worked, all of it seemed to be funny.”

The director added that James, who showed flashes of his comic chops when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2007, took the role very seriously. “I think he actually put a lot of work into, quietly, and came in really knowing what he wanted to do,” he said.

Related: ‘Trainwreck’ Brings the House Down at SXSW — And It’s Not Even Finished Yet?

Spy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a desk-bound CIA agent called into real action when her mentor (Jude Law) gets gunned down, features Statham in a supporting role as the brash Rick Ford. On the surface, Ford appears to be just as confident, skilled, and badass as your typical Jason Statham hero, but he’s revealed to be an erratic, irresponsible mess who routinely needs saving from McCarthy’s Susan Cooper. In one of the movie’s funniest moments, Statham delivers a hilariously absurd monologue about all of his various accomplishments in the field — all of which are blatantly ridiculous lies. Statham plays the role straight as an arrow, and it’s the main reason why it works so well.

Watch the trailer for Spy:

Like Schumer with James, Spy writer-director Paul Feig wrote the character of Ford with Statham in mind, even though the actor’s never appeared in a traditional comedy. “People would read the script and go, ‘Oh that’s for Will Ferrell,” Feig said. “But I didn’t want a funny person playing that role.”

Feig said the filmmakers behind Statham’s over-the-top Crank movies “should get all the credit for discovering him as a comedy star. I’ve seen all his movies, but when I saw that when it first came out, I was like, “This guy is funny. He knows he’s funny. He knows how to play it straight.”

Feig added of the character, “I didn’t want him to be a buffoon. He’s a good spy who is so thrown off his game by the fact that somebody who he considers an inferior is out over him, that it just drives him crazy and he starts making terrible decisions.”

Statham told Yahoo how excited he was about the role when we talked to him in 2013. But both he and Feig noted that he almost dropped out of the project at one point because of reservations about the comedic elements.

“I didn’t want to be slipping on a banana skin,” Statham said. “I didn’t know what was in store. But as soon as you get 10 minutes with Paul then you know that he’s no messer. And I love his movies. But I didn’t want to come in and f—k something up.”

Instead, he and James do the exact opposite.

Spy opens June 5; Trainwreck will be in theaters July 17.

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