THE FOOT FIST WAY, an indie comedy made in just 19 days, was picked up by Will Ferrell’s production company, and it bears many of the hallmarks found in Ferrell’s recent spate of films. It involves sport, in this case Tae Kwon Do. It involves a clueless hero (played by co-writer Danny McBride, not by Ferrell himself), with only a passing acquaintanceship with the world in which everyone else lives, and it involves a climactic final match-up (will the misfit teacher’s class succeed in moving up a grade, beltwise?). Alas, it bears little resemblance to the absurdist tone of Ferrell’s work that is to be found in even his less successful efforts. The result is some huge laughs that are few, far between, and buffered with action that is not just dull, it is palpably embarrassing to watch as the flick doggedly fails to find the funny bone.
It’s the turning point for Fred Simmons, an oddly turtle-like doofus with an uncertain buzz cut, sleepy eyes, and enough personality issues to keep a team of trained professionals busy for quite some time. Not quite eligible for institutionalization, or similar restraints, he is, nonetheless, spectacularly unsuitable for molding the insecure minds, young or old, entrusted to him as a Tae Kwon Do master. He is barely the master of himself, his wife, or his life. Said wife, given to spandex, scary shoes, and too much lip gloss, has fidelity issues. His apprentice, Julio, is a chubby charmer who is only just on the cusp of puberty, and his fall-back apprentice has hit puberty, or so his acne proclaims, but is an introvert with self-confidence issues that Fred does nothing to help. In fact, the casual tongue-lashings directed at both of them smack more of a documentary (bad) on emotional abuse than a comedy. With his marriage falling apart, and the demonstrations designed to boost enrollment not going smoothly, Fred reaches out to his hero, an action movie star, Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (co-writer Ben Best), to restore his self-respect and the luster of his school’s upcoming student testing.
The moments of inspired humor come when all sense of boundaries are lifted, which doesn’t happen often enough. An unequal match in the martial arts school Fred runs extrapolated out to its worst possible conclusion. Fred coming on to a comely student after he has convinced himself that it’s the other way around. Pure gold. An uncomfortable dinner party thrown by Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic) Fred’s overgroomed wife for a more upwardly mobile couple is just uncomfortable. As with most of the film, the punch lines are buried, and the playfulness that should be keeping the action bouncing along is nowhere to be found.
McBride himself strikes a tone that is a scooch too serious for a comedy. He’s not playing it straight, he’s playing it Eugene O’Neil. The most interesting character, Fred’s best friend and fellow Tae Kwon Do-er, Mike (director and co-writer Jody Hill), doesn’t make an appearance soon enough, but when he does, the butter-substitute hair color and general sense of self-absorbed derangement is arrestingly weird. It’s not necessary for him to tell Julio and Henry at the start of a benighted road trip that he will be doing very bad things and that their code of conduct requires them to never tell, it’s patently self-evident, but it’s delightful to watch the pronouncement and the reaction. Chuck “The Truck”, character and performance, on the other hand, is the cliché of a cynical third-string celebrity on the make and in the bottle.
THE FOOT FIST WAY putatively organizes itself into chapters that are related to the tenets of Tae Kwon Do. It’s a device that falls flat as it resolutely does no such thing, and also resolutely doesn’t make sport of that fact. It’s uneven, uncertainly paced, and suffering from bad editing that make its other faults that much more glaring. Breaking boards and concrete blocks is fun to watch, but that and a few good laughs, do not a viable comedy product make.