Studios seem to favor comedies driven more by concept than by personal narratives or real feelings. Dad vs. Stepdad! Frat vs. Family! Two teachers, parking lot, 3 pm! Fist Fight‘s logline is succinct and easy to put on a poster, and while it would’ve been nice to make the marketers work a little harder, to have a story that was more about character and less about concept, even failing that, someone should’ve realized that this concept doesn’t give anyone much to do. The dad and the stepdad, the frat and the family, they at least had an escalating series of conflicts. Here we’re just waiting for one, and it gets boring fast. And thus we end up with 90 minutes of manic banter about a nothing plot.
Day plays Mr. Campbell, an English teacher on the last day of school, a responsible nice guy who needs to loosen up and blah blah blah. You know he’s the Nice Guy Who Needs To Loosen Up because he wears a suit and tie and talks about responsibility. Which, by the way, is about the last thing anyone wants to watch Charlie Day do. I know, I know, we should let him evolve and grow as an actor and stuff but come on, he’s the wild card! He’s the guy who catches a cat in the wall! Why make him play the stick-in-the-mud?
We also know by the laws of lazy movie math that since it stars the spineless wimp, the story will ultimately be resolved when he punches out his proverbial Biff, finally showing some backbone, thus gaining back the respect of the requisite preposterously too-attractive-for-him wife (Joanna Garcia Swisher) and preteen daughter. The latter has Mr. Campbell scheduled to perform with her at her middle school talent show, which might be this movie’s most contrived plot point, and that would really be saying something. Who has a talent show on the last day of school? Even accepting that, what middle school kid includes a parent in their talent show act? It’s the most yadda of yadda yaddas, the equivalent of having your rom-com love interest declare, apropos of nothing, “Oh, and don’t forget, I have to run through an airport at 2:30 today.”
Guys, stop. The talent show scene was already the worst part of About A Boy and Crazy Stupid Love.
So anyway, Ice Cube plays Mr. Strickland, the mean history teacher everyone’s afraid of. Because of budget cuts, the district is going to be laying off some teachers at the end of the day and blah blah blah zzzz. Suffice it to say, Campbell sort of gets Strickland fired, and so the latter challenges the former to a fight. At 3 pm sharp. Which is going to be hard for Campbell, because he has to perform at his daughter’s talent show at 2:30, save his job during a teacher’s conference at 2:15, all while winning back the respect of his pregnant wife, who could give birth at any second. Ugh, is anyone else tired? This movie somehow has both no story and too much story. Lots of things happening, but all as a way to distract from the main thing not happening.
Strickland nicknames Campbell “light roast,” after a sequence in which Campbell tries to help Strickland figure out the office Keurig machine. Which is sort of funny, and that’s basically Fist Fight in a nutshell: mildly funny jokes to keep us entertained while we wait for something we don’t really care much about to begin with. These guys are bone stock characters and no amount of swearing or dick drawings (a recurring joke sort of lifted from Superbad, who did it much better) is going to make up for that. To say nothing of meta callback “jokes” like Ice Cube saying “f*ck the police” and “you got knocked the f*ck out.” Haha, those are things that guy has said before!
Right, so about this concept. The entire movie hinges on the suspense of us waiting for the titular fight, and, if a deranged coworker actually wanted to kill you, that’d be pretty suspenseful. But Fist Fight treats it all as this big joke. Campbell seems worried, but everyone else thinks it’s just funny. 911 operators gather round to make fun of him, a kid in Taiwan makes an animation showing Charlie Day’s face on a baby peeing itself (the local-event-that-goes-viral being a high school comedy staple going all the way back to #SaveFerris in Ferris Beuller), etc. But if it’s all a big joke, then there’s no suspense. So why are you trying to hang an entire plot on it? Did you forget to commit to your own high concept?
Jillian Bell from Workaholics plays Day’s teacher friend whose own recurring joke is about wanting to have sex with her students. “Isn’t it weird that you spend four years teaching them and then one day they turn 18 and it’s legal to f*ck them?”
Now that high concept might’ve had some juice. Unfortunately it’s just one of many throwaway lines. Bell plays Fist Fight‘s most consistently funny character, but even she mentions that she’s “on meth” less than 10 minutes into the movie, which is a good indication that you’re grasping at straws. If your first improv class “yes and” is “yes, and I’m on meth!” that’s an automatic C.
Fist Fight‘s plot doesn’t work as the high concept it thinks it is, and it’s definitely not a character piece. It feels like a bunch of reasonably likable people standing around saying “just kidding!” About what, I’m not sure.