Finding the right balance between “not enough” and “too much” can be tough for modern comedies. If you hold back or tiptoe around sensitive material, your jokes can fall flat. But if you make the humor all about being as offensive as possible, it can wind up being one-note, making it equally unfunny.
Fist Fight is one of the few recent comedies to find such a balance. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much to the story: High school English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) runs afoul of history teacher Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) on the last day of school, and Strickland challenges Campbell to a fight. It’s what happens between the challenge and the fight that elevates the movie.
Campbell, being much scrawnier than Strickland, does everything in his power to get out of the fight. He’s “helped” in this pursuit by randy counselor Holly (Jillian Bell), who has no filter, and the semi-clueless Coach Crawford (Tracy Morgan). The teachers and administrators also have to try to steer clear of the various pranks being perpetrated by the students, ones that range from relatively harmless to felonious.
Add in a pregnant wife and looming father-daughter dance performance for Campbell, and the threat for all of being fired by Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) due to district cutbacks, and there is a lot to divide the film’s focus. But director Richie Keen and writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser keep the story tight by mostly aiming it at Campbell, with diversions added when appropriate.
They also understand the difference between being outrageously funny and just being outrageous. There is no shortage of profanity and other potentially offensive things on display in the film, but nothing ever feels out of place thanks to great timing and the filmmakers setting up the disparate elements well.
They also deliver on the goods. Strickland’s challenge is laid down early in the film, leaving open the possibility that, despite the title of the film, it could be a MacGuffin. But even with a ton of prologue, a fight does indeed occur, and it’s full of a ferocity normally reserved for an action film, laced with just enough comedy to keep it from being too serious.
The mayhem occurring at the school is definitely heightened for effect, but the film never seems to go over the top. It helps that the pranks involve things any creative thinking teenager could utilize to drive adults crazy. If this is somehow an accurate representation of high schools these days, though, then God help us all.
Day’s raspy voice gives him a natural comedic quality that’s only enhanced by his acting skills. He takes a role we’ve seen before and turns it into something special. Ice Cube doesn’t have a ton to do other than snarl and yell, but damned if he isn’t really effective at it.
There won’t be many, if any, awards coming Fist Fight’s way, but it deserves a lot of credit for knowing when and how to make its audience laugh. Truly successful comedies are an endangered species these days, but Fist Fight is one of them.