Joe Somebody is a tame little Tim Allen vehicle in which the laughs are leveled by the self-esteem lecturing. Screenwriter John Scott Shepherd has concocted, and director John Pasquin has executed, a cloyingly mechanical wannabe comedy in the worm-turns mode.

Joe Scheffer (essayed by Allen as winningly as the formula lines allow) is an office nerd who stands up to the corporate bully (Patrick Warburton) and challenges him to a payback fight after being pulverized by him in a parking-lot altercation in front of his mortified teenage daughter (Hayden Panettiere). Suddenly, office workers see Scheffer in a new and admiring light, and corporate doors previously closed to him swing wide open.

Then comes the nitty-gritty (and only genuinely funny) business of getting in shape for the match, which entails more than a little professional help from a trainer (Jim Belushi). This role is contrived as a washed-up martial-arts movie star, and you can read this as a body slam to Steven Seagal, if you wish. Seedy Belushi makes the ribbing a blood sport.

Greg Germann is sufficiently serpentine as a middle-management manipulator who promotes the fight and shifts the locale to its true setting: a schoolyard playground. The script boxes itself into a big clich and then labors ferociously to extricate itself.

What's at stake here will seem slightly ludicrous, if not even a little Louisa May Alcott, alongside multiplex neighbors like Black Hawk Down or In the Bedroom--just to cite two current releases in which ordinary people answer challenges in extraordinary ways. Granted, the Tim Allen trade is more family-oriented than those examples--so perhaps there is a place in the marketplace for this pleasant pabulum, particularly with the box-office spillage that Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings will produce.

--Harry Haun