Coarse com­edy makes sense only at end

San Francisco Chronicle - - MOVIE REVIEWS - By Mick LaSalle Mick LaSalle is The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle’s movie critic. Email: mlasalle@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @Mick­LaSalle

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.

Bob Mahoney / Warner Bros.

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.

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