Comedies don’t have to be big and slick to be winners—as a matter of fact that’s usually a hindrance nowadays—but they do need to be funny. That’s where “The Foot Fist Way” stumbles. The poverty-row picture about a doofus tae kwan do teacher tries to make hay out of the man’s obliviousness and buffoonery, but succeeds only in being as stupid and irritating as its protagonist. And its supposedly slapstick knockabout bits are less amusing than nasty.
Danny McBride stars as Fred Simmons, an abrasive, self-promoting and incredibly dense martial-arts instructor who owns an improbably successful school in a small-town strip mall. He regularly pushes around his students, especially his most loyal ones—“second-in-command” Julio (Spencer Moreno) and milquetoast Henry (Carlos Lopez IV)—but they remain loyal to him despite his empty bluster. Fred’s devoted to his blonde bombshell of a wife Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic), even though she’s obviously unfaithful to him, but his attention is so focused on his job that he’s slow on the uptake.
When he becomes aware of her extracurricular activities, however, it sets him off, leading him not only to abuse a kid he thinks is her lover’s son but to attempt an awkward, hopeless seduction of a pretty new student (Collette Wolfe). But it’s not enough to keep him from taking the opportunity to go to a convention spotlighting his hero, Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (Ben Best), a low-rent Chuck Norris who’s the star of a bunch of Z-quality DVD movies. And when he corrals Wallace into appearing at his dojo’s graduation exhibition (even though he won’t be able to afford the fellow’s fee), he’s overjoyed—until the preening champ comes to town and shows a lot more interest in his paycheck and Suzie than in any ceremonies. A face-off is inevitable.
Clearly “The Foot Fist Way” is aiming for a “Napoleon Dynamite” sort of sensibility; in inviting viewers to laugh at the lead character’s clueless attitude, it’s as condescending as that surprise cult smash was. But there’s a crucial difference in that while Napoleon had a naïve sweetness to him, there’s nothing remotely redeeming about Simmons, whose total lack of self-knowledge is matched only by his brutish, aggressive personality. (It’s no wonder that Will Ferrell’s among the established stars who’ve embraced the picture—his company is releasing it—since Fred has a lot in common with his stumblebum, self-absorbed creations.) The result is that though we’re supposed to identify with him in the semi-triumphant finale, that’s almost impossible to do.
On the upside, there are occasional moments of muted charm provided by Moreno and Lopez, who are so likable that they make one regret that Julio and Henry ever had anything to do with Fred. And you have to admit that McBride is eerily on-target in what’s a genuinely fearless performance, and that Best is similarly convincing as the obnoxious Wallace. But neither brings any sympathetic shading to his character, and that’s ultimately fatal.
And everybody else in the cast—especially Bostic—have the whiff of amateur hour about them, and Jody Hill’s direction is more than a little laissez faire. The tech credits are distinctly low-grade, but what do you expect of a movie made on credit cards in North Carolina in less than three weeks?
But it’s not the homespun quality that dooms “The Foot Fist Way,” it’s the essential meanness of its main character, who invites more appalled revulsion than affection, more winces than laughs. So the picture is a matter of tae kwan don’t.