The Foot Fist Way premiered at Sundance in 2006. I got my hands on a copy about a year ago, and wondered why it never got a big cross-country release. I knew it was a hit among big-time comedy folk (your Stillers, your Apatows, your Oswalts), and I started to figure that maybe they just wanted to keep it to themselves. But with a big push from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Foot Fist has found its way into theaters. Shot independently over nineteen days for little money in North Carolina, the film is a character study about a character you'd never want to meet -- Fred Simmons.
Danny McBride plays Simmons, an unbalanced children's Tae Kwon Do instructor who goes completely off the rails when his wife (the very funny Mary Jane Bostic) cheats on him. Fred is obsessed with karate master and low-budget film star Chuck "The Truck" Wallace (Ben Best), and tries to focus his energies on bringing his hero to the school. That's about it for a plot, much of the film consists of quasi-connected short scenes and moments that feel quite a bit like sketches. A genuinely hilarious scene early on involving an elderly woman, for example, is a self-contained jewel (I actually choked on soda watching it), and would be an internet sensation if this film had never existed.
The juxtaposition of a deranged man and young children is a comedy staple going back (at least) to W.C. Fields, but since this is an indie flick, things go darker than you might expect. Simmons is not a likable man, not at all really, and McBride's resistance to give him a big heart makes him feel a lot more authentic than a lot of the "heroes" in major studio comedies today. Sometimes a dick is just a dick. McBride is highly committed to showing this guy warts-and-all. You know someone like Fred Simmons, whether you want to or not. For my money, McBride creates a near-classic character here. The guy has the potential to become a comedy superstar, but unfortunately that might mean selling his distinctive comic voice short. You've already seen him try the big-budget comedy thing in movies that were beneath his considerable talent -- Drillbit Taylor, The Heartbreak Kid, and Hot Rod. You can see him this summer in two that will hopefully serve him better -- Tropic Thunder and The Pineapple Express.
McBride wrote the script with Best and director Jody Hill (remember that name). The film wears its influences on its sleeve, but at least it rips off really good stuff. The style feels like a far sloppier take on the early works of Wes Anderson (and its script shares Rushmore's obsession with "handjobs"). The freak-for-all characters will remind viewers of Napoleon Dynamite -- the films certainly share a mean streak. And McBride's performance suggests he spent weeks studying Ricky Gervais' portrayal of David Brent on the hysterical BBC sitcom The Office. (If you only know the Americanized Steve Carell version, you best bring up that Netflix queue right quick.)
The mass discomfort contained in a half-hour episode of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm is off-putting to a lot of people, and that level of awkwardness stretched over a ninety minute film may be too much for some to bear. Make no mistake, Foot Fist goes to some nasty places, and it doesn't look away. Some scenes won't get laughs, and sometimes laughs don't even seem to be the goal. McBride has a pretty amazing scene where he is right on the verge of completely breaking down and tries to pull himself together in the mirror before facing his students. The "pep talk" doesn't take, and he finds himself on his knees in front of the class, openly crying. That scene is played straight, and it's genuinely heartbreaking. Those moments are what set this thing apart, but also what might push some away.
It's an odd little picture, and it's got a pretty spotty second half. But it's also a hell of a lot more thrilling to watch than whatever glossed-up take on the material Hollywood would have coughed up. It's not at all difficult to imagine Ferrell in the McBride role, and I think you can imagine exactly what that movie would have been -- a predictable, toothless, whitewashed, comfortable "dude teaches kids sports" movie along the lines of Ferrell's Kicking and Screaming. Everybody learns a lesson, everybody gets redeemed, everybody goes home happy. The closest thing to a real redemption here is an astoundingly filthy (and completely unexpected) monologue Fred delivers to his wife near the end of the film, and it certainly doesn't leave you feeling like everything's gonna be okay for ol' Fred. Quite the opposite, really. I laughed, but then I sort of shivered.
Taint for everyone, but those who don't mind a walk on the dark side will have a ball with Foot Fist, faults and all. It's a kick-in-the-nuts of a comedy.