Few actors stage a freak out as well as Charlie Day. He is, of course, the man behind the Pepe Silvia freak out—one of pop culture’s seminal breakdowns—and fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia know that Day can go big and he can get quiet, but either way his freak outs are peerless. He’s a champion melt-downer. Fist Fight is a movie built entirely on the premise of Day pitching a sustained, ninety minute freak out, and on paper that’s not a bad idea. But in execution it turns out that not even Charlie Day indulging himself can save Fist Fight. This is a criminally unfunny movie, made all the worse for its spectacular waste of talent.
Day stars as Andy Campbell a demoralized public school teacher at a school so underfunded and under-resourced that the students have run totally wild, and “Senior Prank Day” has basically turned into “Torture Teachers Day”. Fist Fight should just be a couple of strung-out teachers on the last day of school spiraling out of control alongside their students, but for some incomprehensible reason, the movie has an incredibly depressing subplot about Andy losing his job.
Budget cuts are resulting in lay-offs, and Andy, who has a young daughter and another child due any minute, is experiencing not only “last day of school” stress but also “will I have a job tomorrow” stress. This pits Andy against a fellow teacher, Strickland (Ice Cube), who is fed up with the asshole students at their school. After destroying a student’s desk with a fire axe, Strickland relies on Any to not snitch, but with his job—and by extension the fate of his family—in the balance, Andy snitches. Of course he does! HIS JOB IS THREATENED.
We don’t have any comparable backstory for Strickland, so he just comes across as a psychopath looking to f*ck some sh*t up who is torturing a guy stricken by middle class despair and uncertainty, keenly aware that he is one financial setback away from poverty. It’s weirdly cruel and depressing for what is, ostensibly, a comedy.
But Fist Fight continues with its hijinks agenda, and Day is joined by Kumail Nanjiani as a security guard who won’t work a moment past 3 PM, Dean Norris as the principal, Christina Hendricks as the knife-loving French teacher, Jillian Bell as a drugged-out guidance counselor determined to sleep with a hot senior—I lived through a teacher being arrested for molesting a student, I wish movies and TV shows would stop trying to make this sexy and fun—and Tracy Morgan as the terrible coach who always loses. This is how bad Fist Fight is: Bell and Morgan can’t pull out even a B+ adlib between them.
There is one genuinely good and deserved laugh in Fist Fight, courtesy Andy’s daughter, Ally (Alexa Nisenon). At her elementary school talent show, a certain Big Sean song is used to surprise her class bully, and that moment, with Nisenon’s confident performance and Day’s perfectly timed reactions, works. It’s not enough to redeem the movie—not even close—but at least that one gag pays off.
But nothing else works that well, not even the fight itself. It is baffling to me how badly done the direction is, as Fist Fight is directed by Richie Keen, a veteran of Always Sunny episodes like “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” and “Mac Day”. He’s done great work on Sunny, but with Fist Fight the only thing he does to emphasize a joke is push the camera in from a medium shot to a close up. It’s so bad that I seriously wonder if Keen dealt with interference on set, or maybe in the editing room, because I can’t believe this movie comes from the same guy who directed “The Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre”.
So Fist Fight is a pass. It’s not like I was expecting Shakespeare—I was hoping for, at best, a dumb-fun movie that would pass muster as a suitable distraction, but it doesn’t. All the funny bits are in the trailer, and there’s only so many times you can watch Charlie Day flip out before even that starts to lose its charm. There’s something to the “inmates are running the asylum” set up that could have worked, but introducing Andy’s too-real backstory of worrying about his ability to support his family kills whatever momentum the wackier parts of Fist Fight manage to build. If you’re looking to Charlie Day to make you laugh, just watch Always Sunny. It’s on Netflix.
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