Is a bad comedy truly a bad comedy when you find yourself laughing a lot? I don't mean pleasure from a movie's awfulness, but laughing at crude jokes written for (and maybe by) 13-year-olds. Before you know it, there you are laughing at a baby in a cloud of cocaine, or two dumb guys watching music videos, or a quartet of foul-mouthed kids. Fist Fight is so crammed with profanity, explicit sight gags, and insanely indecent moments that, statistically speaking, if you last the first 10 minutes without being so offended you walk out, you're bound to be amused.
Like Bad Moms, the movie relies heavily for humor on grownups who act inappropriately around kids, although in this case, the kids are even more badly behaved that the adults, making each scene a festival of raunchiness. It's set on the last day of high school, which at Roosevelt High is also Senior Prank Day, where students are somehow able to get away with activities that make Rock 'n' Roll High School seem as prim as my all-girls Catholic alma mater.
Literature teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) is the designated center of reason in this film, forced into a day of obligations that as soon as they're named, we know will cause trouble. His wife is about to give birth, his daughter needs him for an after-school dance recital, and he's got a meeting to find out if he'll be laid off next year. His anti-confrontational personality (“wussy” isn't quite the word used) clashes with Mean Teacher Strickland (Ice Cube), leading Strickland to challenge Campbell to the duel referenced in the title.
Charlie Day's voice ratchets higher by the octave as Andy grows increasingly anxious, which is fitting for the character but grating for the rest of us. While he should be the center of reason among teachers with meth habits and foul mouths, Strickland's short temper actually feels more grounding, and it's easier to sympathize with him, throwing the film slightly off-balance. We want to see Ice Cube kicking ass, especially after we've watched him gracefully play the piano and wield an axe (not in the same scene).
So many comic actors appear in Fist Fight that it feels crowded, and many have only a brief moment to shine. Tracy Morgan is funny, but he can do that on autopilot. Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) deserves more screen time. Jillian Bell's character has two jokes, repeated over and over, which start to thud after a while. Christina Hendricks has one repetitious joke, but teases it out beautifully.
The storyline is either lame or a disturbingly reactionary allegory about American education – I'm not sure which. Think about it: The “Roosevelt” system has broken down, with students (and a horse) running riot in the halls, and the white guy has lost his masculinity and is merely a tool of The Man. To save his life and his job, he must triumph over the menacing African-American guy. On the other hand, this interpretation assumes that way more thought went into the screenplay than is likely the case.
Still, the writers managed to crowbar a message about education into Fist Fight, which dilutes the movie's cartoonish, nonsensical tone. The “lesson” that public-school funding and discipline problems are caused solely by poor local/district administration and insufficient manhood is an absurdly alternative fact.
Fist Fight relies heavily on R-rated profanity, anatomical sketches, masturbation, drugs, and underage sex for comedy. But nonstop vulgarity loses its humorous edge. I laughed hardest at a G-rated running gag involving a mariachi band. Someday a film Ph.D. student will strike dissertation gold by investigating why Andy's passivity causes characters to lambast him with pejoratives for both the male and the female anatomy. (It's an R-rated movie, not an R-rated movie review.)
Oddly for me, Fist Fight bears a remarkable resemblance to the 2011 indie film Wuss, also about a pathetic high-school teacher who's bullied so much he feels he needs to “man up.” Day's character even looks like Wuss lead Nate Rubin. If you want to see a more poignant and nuanced version of Fist Fight, you can find Wuss on popular streaming services.
Fist Fight itself tries too hard to be a filthy comedy — it's not filthy so much as it's naughty, like a child who's recently discovered smut and dirty words. High-school students who successfully sneak into the movie will enjoy it most. And yet, despite its juvenile level of humor and story, the film includes some irresistibly funny moments that may be worth a movie night, especially if you hit happy hour first.
Jette Kernion lives in Austin and would like her brother the high school principal to review this movie.