These days, raunchy studio comedies pride themselves on three necessities: swearing, dick jokes, and anarchy-level chaos. Some recent favorites, including “This is the End” and “The Nice Guys,” succeeded beautifully because they used those components to service the story, characters, location and/or genre, not merely to carry the overall film to the finish line. But such winners are rarities. That’s because, more often than not, you usually end up with something like “Fist Fight,” a loud, broad, meandering, overcompensating misfire consisting of mayhem, delirium, foul language and verbal hostility with little substance. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with incorporating those elements in a wide audience-friendly farce, but when you rely on those elements alone to carry your movie, that’s when it gets really tedious to endure.
While it’s the last day of the school year, today’s not a good day for nebbish English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day). Stuck in one of the absolute worst schools in the area, the inmates run the asylum and, in an annual tradition, it’s senior prank day. Property is covered in graffiti. Prized baseball bats and other trophied items are stolen. Horses on meth run through the hallways. Dicks are drawn everywhere, though that’s not necessarily reserved for this particular day. It’s a living hell for these miserable, anxious educators, and that’s not their only concern. Due to massive budget cuts, teachers and other staff members are getting fired left-and-right.
Everyone’s job is on the line. With a pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and bright young daughter (Alexa Nisenson) at home, Andy can’t afford to get canned. The last thing this jittery dweeb needs is bad news, particularly as he’s rushing through his work day so he can perform alongside his daughter during her school talent show, but little does he know the trouble in store for him whenever he crosses paths with the fierce, intimidating Strickland (Ice Cube).
Due to an incident involving a historical documentary, a faulty VHS player, misbehaving students, a disgruntled, broken teacher, a swinging fire axe and a broken desk, Strickland and Andy wind up in the office of Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) with their jobs threatened unless one of them tells the truth about the nasty situation. Naturally, Andy admits what actually happened and Strickland gets sacked, but that won’t sit well for the public servant with a vengeance. Without hesitation, Strickland challenges Andy to a fight at 3 PM in the parking lot. It doesn’t take long before word spreads throughout the school (and elsewhere), with absolutely everyone expecting Andy to end up the worse for wear by the end of the bitter ordeal. That includes Andy’s untrustworthy work friends, the aloof Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan), and the horny, drugged out guidance counselor Holly (Jillian Bell). If Andy is expected to walk away from this fight with his life, he’ll need to toughen up and learn to break bad.
Swearing is a lot like chocolate. In moderation, it’s quite terrific, but if you have too much, it’s nauseating. “Fist Fight” is the cinematic equivalent of woofing down an entire double chocolate cake in one sitting — only it’s not all that delicious to begin with. It’s not long before f-cking “Fist Fight” goes really f-cking overboard with the motherf-cking swearing. If everyone swears, then no one swears. That’s typically something Richie Keen, a TV director making his feature film debut, and first-time screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, along with a story credit by “New Girl” star Max Greenfield, tend to forget or ignore. Swearing loses its value whenever it forgoes its shock factor. If every character, be it teachers, students, mothers, senior citizens and children, are cursing in nearly all of their lines, then cuss words are ultimately meaningless in the context of the given world. Swearing is powerful when it’s defiant, or unexpected, or well-placed, not merely when it’s uttered aloud. That’s the film’s gravest fault.
It also doesn’t help that “Fist Fight” lacks comedic range. Everything is always heightened to 11, from the first frame forward, and for 90 minutes, it’s a repetitive stretch of swearing, dick joke, swearing, dick joke, swearing, masturbation gag, swearing, dick joke, swearing, yelling, yelling, yelling, sight gag, dick joke, swearing, sight gag, dick joke, swearing, yelling, swearing, yelling, yelling, swearing, violence, more violence, dick joke, sight dick gag, swearing, yelling and so on and so forth. It gets old before it’s even funny. At least it’s consistent, and it’s hard to dismiss the energy it puts into mostly lame bits.
The cast — for what it’s worth — all do their best. Most of them seem to be enjoying themselves too, if that counts for something. Day and Cube do work pretty well together. They don’t have incredible comedic chemistry, but they’re decent enough in their little yin yang relationship. Bell and Morgan, too, have fun working beside Day, while Morgan looks happy to be working, period, following his recovery from a horrific car accident. Morgan’s timing is still incredibly on point, and whenever “Fist Fight” earns a few odd chuckles, they usually come from his enthusiastic presence. If only the rest worked quite as well.
Even with over a decade under its perverted belt, Day’s high-pitch squeaks still work wonders on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Most particularly, last week’s “Hero or Hate Crime?,” which Day co-wrote, was excellent as only the long-running dark satire can be, containing what might honestly be one of the show’s weirdly sweetest reveals. If only Day found that success at the movies. Minus some strong vocal turns in “The Lego Movie” and “Monsters University,” Charlie’s specific comedy talents haven’t yet earned their big screen justice. With “Fist Fight,” the sitcom actor’s rare cinematic lead, Day does everything he can to save the lackluster script, but it’s simply not enough. His earnest bombast is appealing in small doses, but on the whole, it’s fairly desperate and futile comedy. There’s little doubting his firm commitment, but without the support of the material, that effort is wasted.
Similar to HBO’s “Vice Principals,” “Fist Fight” assumes potty language inside a school setting is funnier than it actually is. But where that freshman comedy series thankfully found its colder, darker, more introspective and thematically compelling bearings after its initially rocky start, “Fist Fight” isn’t left with a leg to stand on. Predictable and overdone, it’s yet another unremarkable studio comedy that wobbles on before getting knocked out. [C]