No matter how many fucks and meth jokes you put in them, they’re still lame—those schmaltzy, nugget-of-non-wisdom life-lesson arcs that middling studio comedies force audiences to endure in exchange for whatever laughs were already in the trailer. Did anyone buy a ticket to Central Intelligence, Office Christmas Party, Sex Tape, or any other randomly picked title because they really wanted to see the characters learn to stand up for themselves, put family and friends first, or get that promotion? Only a masochist would. But the rule still holds that, in broad terms, the mainstream of film comedy consists of indifferently formulaic, atrociously paced family and work dramas in which the characters are always stopping to talk about what just happened. Often, there are jokes, but through a critic’s They Live glasses, they all read as, “Look at the thing. Buy Apple products.” Or, “I am a supporting character with no social filter. Blurt, blurt, blurt. Time for drugs.”
Fist Fight, which stars Ice Cube and Charlie Day as feuding schoolteachers, is no different in this respect, and can’t be accused of anything beyond an industry-wide shoddiness. It’s set on the last day of school at a cash-strapped high school in the Atlanta suburbs, where graduating seniors have a tradition of playing elaborate pranks (an idea that yields surprisingly few gags), the faculty ranges from buffoonish to psychotic, and nobody sounds like they’re from the South. After the nebbishy English teacher Mr. Campbell (Day) gets the short-tempered, prank-hating history teacher Mr. Strickland (Cube) fired to protect his own job amid budget cuts, Strickland challenges him to a fight in the school parking lot. With shades of the ’80s teen comedy Three O’Clock High, Campbell spends the day trying to weasel his way out of this 3 p.m. appointment.
It’s a quintessential latter-day studio comedy, in that the premise gets completely lost in self-actualization subplots that nobody (filmmakers included) gives two shits about and that the characters do a lot of pointing. Sometimes it’s the incredulous “Who, me?” point-to-self, sometimes it’s the “Over there!” or the “I’m on to you.” Nowhere is the index finger wielded as indiscriminately as it is in lackluster comedies. Fist Fight basically has two good gags: the tireless mariachi band hired by pranking seniors to follow the principal (Dean Norris) around and the sheer amount of bodily harm inflicted in the eventual showdown between Campbell and Strickland. The rest depends on the presumably improvised ramblings of assorted kooks: a golf-cart-driving security guard (Kumail Nanjiani), an incompetent coach (Tracy Morgan, with noticeable post-accident scars), and a guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) with a meth habit and the mind-set of a sexual predator.
Bell’s spun advisor ends up making a better foil than the glowering, one-note Strickland, a character who is somehow less well-developed than the broad parody of hardass black police captain stock types that Cube played in 21 Jump Street and its sequel. Day’s Campbell, however, has the misfortune of being the straight man protagonist, which means that he must learn to stand up for himself, become a better husband and father, and overcome embarrassment at a talent show (at a different school, no less) before he finally trades blows with his rival. In there, he also finds time to make a trip to the Apple store, attempt to frame Strickland for drug dealing, and get arrested and released without his boss noticing. He also has a due-any-minute pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and financial troubles, though nothing that happens in Fist Fight suggests any relationship to the realities of money or the human body, or even the basic rules of space and time. But who cares, right?
The fact is that moviegoers deserve a better class of comedy, or at least movies that aren’t composed of one part recycled three-act filler and one part vamping. As is too often the case, there are the makings of a diverting comedy in here: the pranks, the pathologically inept teachers and school staff, the more-than-capable cast. But they’re executed with a minimum of inspiration and packaged in conventions that are neither sincere nor funny—ironic for a movie whose characters are constantly complaining about substandard materials and cut corners.