Coarse comedy makes sense only at end
For at least an hour of its hour and a half running time, “Fist Fight” is a complete failure, a sour comedy without laughs. But then something happens in the movie’s last quarter. It doesn’t exactly redeem itself, but it comes into focus and starts making sense on its own weird terms. Instead of being ugly and flailing in all directions, it becomes harsh and specific and almost interesting.
In the end, it’s still not worth taking the journey, but at least “Fight Fight” gets credit going somewhere.
It takes place in a world that is intended to be funny but is repellent in every way. Charlie Day plays an English teacher on the last day of school. The seniors are playing destructive pranks on the teachers, and even worse, the teachers have to worry about their jobs. Cuts to the staff are going to be announced by the end of the day.
Campbell (Day) has a wife and daughter and another child on the way, so he can’t afford to lose his job, which makes him an ingratiating nervous wreck, not only in his career but in every facet of his life. Meanwhile, the history teacher, Strickland (Ice Cube), is reacting to stress in an entirely different way, by flying into rages and threatening students with a fireman’s ax.
When Campbell offends Strickland, Strickland tells him that he’s going to beat him up after school. So “Fist Fight” is something like an adult version of a formula high school comedy about a little guy having to spend all day terrified by the prospect of getting beaten up by a big guy. The idea is that making them adults is supposed to be funny in and of itself, but it’s not. It’s also not funny that Ice Cube is made to seem like a borderline psychopath.
In an effort to stretch things to feature length, the movie devises a series of incidents, in which a panicky Campbell tries to do what he can to avoid the fight. But these incidents are labored and hard to enjoy, partly because they’re comically inept, but also because Campbell is a sympathetic character. It’s not particularly enjoyable watching him suffer. Nor is it a pleasure watching Charlie Day break his back trying to flog a dead script.
Fortunately, once these incidents are over with and the movie is close enough to the finish that it can start the process of ending, “Fist Fight” gets better. In its last 20 minutes, it becomes a movie about courage for its own sake, about the value of facing down fear. This is hardly an original idea, but “Fist Fight” does something different by expressing that idea in the nastiest, harshest way. There’s a scene in which Campbell’s 10-year-old daughter (Alexa Nisenson) performs a rap song in the school talent show that is shockingly coarse — too coarse to be funny. But it’s better than funny. It’s an arresting moment that makes a point.
Meanwhile, hovering in the back of “Fist Fight” is the notion, almost in passing, that teachers are regarded as expendable, that budget cuts can wipe out entire departments. A generation ago, even during recessions, the possibility of mass economic calamity was hardly a presence in movies, much less comedies. So this is a modern motif, and it kind of explains the coarseness, not only of the characters, but that of today’s audiences, which are willing to put up with it and even take pleasure in it.
When people are anxious about big things, niceties fall by the wayside.
Charlie Day (left) plays a timid high school teacher facing the possibility of losing his job. His anxiety is heightened after fellow teacher Ice Cube challenges him to a fight after school.