LIKE SCHOOL ON SATURDAY
Review by Paul Preston
Fist Fight is one of those comedies that has nothing. Often. So it substitutes with swearing and odd behavior, as if shocking or being eccentric can make up for a lack of subsantial comedy moments. It doesn’t.
Charlie Day plays Andy Campbell, an English teacher who is slogging through day after day of a high school overrun with attitude-filled students who are straight-up jerks. Few to none of these kids are redeemable in any way. When you hear or think that the future is bleak, this is who they’re talking about. Andy has a daughter and one on the way and is just happy to have the job to support his family. Andy helps fellow teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) settle a tech issue which leads to Strickland taking an axe to a student’s desk. The incident leads to Campbell getting Strickland fired to save his own job (amidst budget cuts). Strickland wants revenge in the form of a fist fight after school – 3PM. And thus, we have plot.
You’re right to think it’s Three O’Clock High with adults – the time, the constant threat of what will happen after school and the look of disdain from those who think the main character is a pussy. This movie has gotten some flack for being pro-violence without any saving grace statement on whether that’s admirable or admonishable, but I can let that go if it’s funny. But there aren’t enough laughs to save the film from having no stance on its central theme. With the constant threats of education budget cuts looming, the opportunity is there, amongst the low-brow masturbation jokes, for some social comment on the hell of being a teacher in the Betsy DeVos era…but it never really comes. Instead, the big fight is supposed to bring the students and teachers together, a premise that is thin at best.
I’ll cop to never having seen It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (I’ve no problem saying that if I have a couple of hours to spare, I’m watching a movie), so I have no idea how funny Charlie Day is on that show. In Horrible Bosses, he was very funny, but there seems to be a failure to direct him effectively ever since. It seems they went all-in on exasperated and didn’t leave much else. The jokes became just as tedious as his vocal range. Ice Cube is great at fuming. It’s seriously one of the best things he does. His Strickland character is one of the only teachers who fights back against the out-of-control behavior of the students. He doesn’t do much else beyond fuming here, but that’s not on him when there isn’t any backstory on why he behaves aggressively. Humanizing him, pulling him away from the one-note bully stereotype might’ve given the film surprising depth.
Jillian Bell is brought in to be weird, which in this Rebel Wilson-loving world is…enough? Tracy Morgan makes a successful return to the big screen after that horrible traffic accident that nearly killed him, but he has a knack for being much funnier in person than in movies. And Christina Hendricks has the worst part in the worst sub-plot. She plays a teacher who overhears Day’s interaction with student and mistakes it for pedophilia. Her response is to immediately want Day dead. Like, literally, DEAD. There are NO laughs in this Three’s Company-style overhearing bit and it adds nothing to the film. If it were cast with a lesser name actress, they could’ve wisely considered it for the cutting room floor.
So, we get surface jokes about teachers sleeping with kids, meth, and as I said before, when in doubt – swearing. It really does all go back to that. Punch up an unfunny or unclever line with swear words and we’re good, right? No. Fist Fight proves this over and over again.