We’ve had many comic stars but, of late, few stars capable of comedy. Sivakarthikeyan looks like he’s getting there — he’s not yet a star, at least in the leading-man sense, but he was the best thing about Kedi Billa Killadi Ranga, and in R.S. Durai Senthilkumar’s Ethir Neechal, where he plays an amiable underachiever with an unfortunate name (let’s call him K), he gets a feature-length platform to display his comic chops.

In an early scene, sitting across Geetha (Priya Anand) as she reaches into her purse, he thinks she’s going to reciprocate his love and give him a greeting card, a Dairy Milk bar, a rose — the standard props for passion in Tamil cinema. And when she doesn’t, his expectant face crumples — but he quickly composes himself. His timing is even more exquisite in the scene where he enters Geetha’s house, then backs out the door (at which point he’s suspended in some sort of half-arc), then comes in again. It’s a pleasure to be reminded of comedy that’s more than just wisecracks.

Save for a song that involves prancing about in silly matching-colour outfits, the romance between K and Geetha is beautifully developed, eschewing sentiment for a light-hearted tone. This happens in the first half, which is delightful. And then, unfortunately, we land in an entirely different movie, an underdog sports saga that was never hinted at earlier, except in clumsy expositional flashes at the beginning. And we’re stuck with a new character, Valli (Nandita), who comes with a crudely melodramatic back story, replete with a sneering villain.

The tone is off — neither the director nor his leading man seems comfortable with all this heavy-duty drama, which rises from the vaguest of reasons. K wants to achieve something, so he decides to compete in the Chennai marathon. Wasn’t there something simpler, more plausible he could have done? In our macho, hero-centric movies, we expect the impossible. Here, we want understatement. We want to return to the love story, which lies sadly forgotten. We want to see Sivakarthikeyan’s face when he finally gets that greeting card, that Dairy Milk bar, that rose.