Fist Fight ** / *****
Directed by: Richie Keen.
Written by: Van Robichaux & Evan Susser and Max Greenfield.
Starring: Charlie Day (Andy Campbell), Ice Cube (Strickland), Tracy Morgan (Coach Crawford), Jillian Bell (Holly), Dean Norris (Principal Tyler), Christina Hendricks (Ms. Monet), Kumail Nanjiani (Mehar), Dennis Haysbert (Superintendent Johnson), JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Maggie), Alexa Nisenson (Ally).
After watching Fist Fight this past Saturday night, my wife turned to me and asked why we cannot watch funny movies anymore. Our Fist Fight experience came just a couple of weeks after we gave up on the Bryan Cranston/James Franco vehicle Why Him? after about 30 minutes, and about a week after we made it all the way through Office Christmas Party with a normally reliable stable of actors like Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Mackinnon, Olivia Munn, Vanessa Bayer and TJ Miller, with nary a laugh between us. Fist Fight is, it must be said, slightly better than those two movies – if for no other reason than Tracey Morgan made me laugh a few times, as did Jillian Bell, and although a late musical number relies on the tired and lazy trope of “kids swearing is funny”, that knowledge doesn’t make kids swearing not actually funny. But, I knew what she meant. Studio comedies have become lazy and formulaic – yes to a certain extent, they’ve always been formulaic, but more and more often, they feel like they aren’t even trying anymore. What really was the last great, laugh-out-loud, mainstream American movie comedy?
In this comedy, Charlie Day plays Andy Campbell, a mild mannered English teacher on the last day of school. Its senior prank day, and the students are going nuts, but he doesn’t really seem to care. He – along with the rest of the staff – may be fired, he has a wife who is about to give birth at any second, and a daughter who he has to help at her talent show that afternoon. But to Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) – a history teacher, who has one emotion – anger. He asks Campbell to help him with a TV on the fritz in his class – and goes completely psycho when the students still sabotage it – bring an ax into the classroom. This doesn’t sit well with the Principal (Dean Norris) – who calls the pair into his office. Campbell snitches, Strickland gets fired – and then tells Campbell that at the end of the day, there’s going to be a fight.
Fist Fight should be funnier than it is. Charlie Day may only have one mode – all manic energy – but it’s a funny manic energy, and Ice Cube being angry is usually good for a laugh. Throw in Tracy Morgan doing his thing, Jillian Bell as an hilariously horny teacher, Christina Hendricks as a calmly psycho French teacher, and Kumail Nanjiani as a security guard, who unhelpfully tells Campbell that if it’s after the school day is over, it ain’t his problem – and Fist Fight should, at least, be passably funny – at least enough to make my wife and I, a few drinks in, laugh at the end of a long Saturday. Sadly though, it didn’t – not really. The film lacks a certain energy, and everyone seems to be going through the motions. Everyone is talented enough that those motions can be amusing at times, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still just going through them. American film comedy is in trouble – no one seems to know how to make a good one any more. Fist Fight is hardly to blame – but it sure doesn’t help.