One joke in “The Foot Fist Way” can give you a good idea of what you’re in for. Fred (Danny R. McBride), the belligerent white-trash Tae Kwon Do instructor who is the film’s protagonist, is sitting down to dinner with his skanky wife and a neighbor couple. Just as they’re about to eat, Fred says, “Oh, s***! We forgot to say grace!”
The humor is in the juxtaposition, of course, the incongruity of a man remembering to pray but expressing it so vulgarly. Inappropriate behavior is at the heart of the whole film, which is a raucous and often very funny examination of a man who is a loser in every possible respect, and this sort of thing has a long, proud history in comedy. “Fawlty Towers” derived its laughs from a pathetic man who always said and did the socially incorrect thing, and who consequently never managed to get ahead in life. Both versions of “The Office” center on perpetually awkward men whose unearned confidence in their own abilities creates one uncomfortable situation after another. Will Ferrell has made a career out of playing arrogant, loud-mouthed buffoons who never realize what idiots they are.
It’s no surprise, then, that Ferrell and his writing partner Adam McKay are among the many high-profile fans of “The Foot Fist Way.” It was Ferrell and McKay who discovered the film, which had premiered at Sundance in 2006 and languished in obscurity thereafter, and used their clout to get it into theaters. Now there are ads featuring quotes not from film critics but from comics like Patton Oswalt, Ben Stiller, and Seth Rogen. It’s smart marketing: Who knows “funny” better than these guys?
It definitely has “cult classic” written all over it, insofar as either you think it’s really funny, or you find Fred’s abrasiveness off-putting beyond all tolerance. (Have you noticed that when it comes to “cult classics,” people either love them or hate them? Nothing bland and congenial ever achieves that status.) My take: I sure laughed a lot. Yes, I’m a sucker for gags based on things that you’re not supposed to joke about, as when Fred beats up a young student because he thinks the kid’s father is cheating with Fred’s wife. (“You got a cup on?” he warns the kid beforehand. “‘Cause I will hit you there.”) In fact, I love the basic idea of a Tae Kwon Do instructor starting a dojo not for noble reasons like improving people’s athleticism and self-confidence, but strictly as a means of meeting hot chicks and beating people up with impunity. Because, you know, that’s not why you’re supposed to teach martial arts. Get it?
The film, written and directed by Jody Hill (with co-writers McBride and Ben Best), is shot with handheld cameras in the familiar do-it-yourself fashion. Fred, a redneck with a military haircut and a police officer mustache, believes himself to be a master teacher, yet even he has an idol: Chuck the Truck (Ben Best), a Chuck Norris-like professional fighter who appears in cheesy action movies. The thrust of the film’s story is that Fred wants Chuck to come be a guest judge at his dojo’s upcoming trials.
More important than the story, though, is Fred himself. McBride has played bit parts in other films, and his new friendship with Ferrell means he’ll soon play many more, but Fred is his tour de force. He’s a grossly immature and stubborn bully, a delusional ladies’ man, and a selfish jerk in most respects. His way of building up a young student’s confidence is to keep pointing out that the student has a confidence problem. In trying to patch things up with his trampy wife, Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic), he says with all sincerity, “I can be the bigger man. But you’re gonna have to be the smaller woman.” You wouldn’t want to deal with Fred in real life — though it’s shocking how closely he resembles certain people we all know — but as a fictional character, his idiocy can be highly amusing.
I didn’t laugh at everything the movie threw at me; I’d be curious to watch the film with Ferrell, who says he’s seen it 20 times, and see if he laughs at some of the things that completely fell flat for me. (Then again, maybe I just idolize Ferrell and want to see how compatible our senses of humor are. We should totally be pals, Will! I’m funny too sometimes! Call me!) And there lurks, at the back of my mind, the knowledge that a lot of transgressive comedy is fairly easy: Think of how people are supposed to act, then have your characters do the opposite. It ain’t exactly rocket science. But I laughed, and I’d watch it again, and if I were a more vulgar man I’d quote a lot of the lines in my daily life. So there you go.
B (1 hr., 85 min.; )