© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4
When I hear the term ‘feel-good British comedy movie’, I usually want to hide inside a coal bin. This is especially so when the film credits contain the words ‘Richard’ and ‘Curtis’. Curtis’s cinematic oeuvre doesn’t leave me feeling good, but leaves me feeling sick: for example, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1998), the first two Bridget Jones films (2001 and 2004) and the absolutely vomit-inducing Love Actually (2003).
I have no intention of ever watching the new Curtis-scripted, Beatles-themed movie Yesterday (2019), even though it’s directed by Danny Boyle. I suspect exposure to it would cause me to develop spewing, frothing, screaming, running-around symptoms similar to those of the people infected by the virus in Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).
That said, I did enjoy the recent British comedy-drama Fighting with my Family, which tells the story of Norwich-born World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) female wrestler Saraya ‘Paige’ Bevis, played by the currently ubiquitous Florence Pugh. Curtis has no connection with the film but it’s written and directed by another long-term member of Britain’s comedy establishment, Stephen Merchant, the former writing partner of Ricky Gervais.
Now Fighting with my Family is no masterpiece and its rags-to-riches tale is a very familiar one. At the start, when Paige isn’t hurtling, bouncing and thudding around the ring in her family’s wrestling gym / independent wrestling-circuit venue, she’s mooching about the streets of Norwich in black eyeliner, facial piercings and unsunny goth-metal gear. Then she gets a once-in-a-lifetime break at a WWE try-out at the O2 Arena, is selected and flown to the USA by wrestling promoter / coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughan), is trained in the flashy and razzmatazz-y ways of the WWE and finally wins the WWE Divas Championship. During the process she encounters hardships: like having to withstand the tough-love training of Morgan, who forces his charges to upend monster-truck tyres all the way along a beach; and the bitchiness of her fellow lady wrestler-trainees, who are ex-models, ex-dancers and ex-cheerleaders, are glammed up to 11 even at moments when they should be shedding sweat like garden sprinklers, and regard poor Paige as a refugee from a Halloween party.
The positive, life-affirming ending is never in doubt, though. It couldn’t be – for Paige is a real wrestler, her remarkable story is well known and it’s already been chronicled in a 2012 Channel 4 documentary.
But Fighting with My Family has some good things going for it, especially when you compare it with the lame British movies I ranted about in the opening paragraph. For a start, it isn’t populated by poshos who, though they’re disgustingly wealthy – Hugh Grant’s character in Four Weddings hangs out with ‘the eighth richest man in England’ while Bridget Jones owns a massive studio flat in London while flitting off at weekends to her parents’ mansion in the Home Counties – we’re expected to feel sorry for because they can’t get laid and can’t get hitched. Paige’s wrestling-fixated family – rumbustious multi-tattooed dad Patrick / Rowdy Richard (Nick Frost), rumbustious crimson-haired mum Julia / Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey), and more reflective brother Zac / Zodiac (Jack Lowther) – are a million miles removed from that. They’re hardly what you’d call ordinary, but they’re definitely non-privileged. They also interact and behave as a believable family unit. Compare them with the characters in Four Weddings, who seem to have been thrown together purely for comic effect. I’m sure that in real life the Hugh Grant character would have run a hundred miles rather than associate with a grizzled old ham like the one played by Simon Callow.
It’s nice too to have the British part of the film set outside London and the Home Counties, and set in a provincial centre like Norwich – where, incidentally, I lived in 2008 and 2009. There’s some scenic shots of the town from Mousehold Heath and Norwich Market is shown in all its variegated glory. Indeed, while I was watching the film with my better half and during a scene set in the market, I pointed excitedly at a particular market stall and exclaimed: “Look! That’s where I bought my George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead T-shirt!”
And I like the fact that even by the end of the film, when Paige enjoys her moment of triumph, she doesn’t renounce her outsider status – she still embraces it. Admittedly, there was a part earlier on where, in response to the jibes of her more glamorous American wrestling compadres, she dyes her hair blonde and tries to lighten her wardrobe. I was worried that she was going to be like Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club (1985), but thankfully this makeover is only temporary. Paige’s cultural inclinations also mean that we get some decent music on the film’s soundtrack, including Motorhead’s Born to Raise Hell and Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter. (If there’s anything I hate more than a Richard Curtis movie, it’s a Richard Curtis movie musical soundtrack, which consists of artists whom the filmmakers calculatingly consider ‘cool’ and ‘cutting edge’ at the time, like, er, Wet Wet Wet, Robbie Williams and Geri Halliwell, doing cover versions of famous songs by the Troggs, Frank Sinatra and the Weather Girls. And even though Yesterday is about the Beatles, they’ve somehow managed to shoehorn Ed Sheerin into it.)
For all its feel-good fuzziness, there’s also some genuine emotional heft in Fighting with the Family’s storyline. Paige’s brother Zac wrestles at the O2 Arena try-out too but, unlike her, fails to make the grade, returns to Norwich with his dreams of WWE stardom in flitters and faces an unplanned-for life of fatherhood, domesticity and drudgery. This will strike a cord with anyone who has a talent and longs to make it big with that talent – but through not having enough talent, or just being unlucky, has to eventually resign themselves to a life of ordinariness. What makes Zac’s dejection worse is the fact (obvious to everyone but himself) that he’s achieving as much, if not more than Paige, just by being his day-to-day self. He runs his parents’ gym and gives wrestling lessons to a bunch of local kids who’d otherwise be getting mixed up with drugs and getting into trouble with the law.
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4
One thing that stopped me being too cynical whilst watching Fighting with the Family is my inability to resist – try as I might – the crazed showmanship of the professional wrestling world. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the old British pro-wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki. Later, when I worked as a teacher in Japan, I discovered that all the Japanese kids were obsessed with Japanese pro-wrestlers – and it didn’t surprise me in the noughties that my nephews, when they were wee lads, were totally into the WWE. Even today, when I’m in a pub and someone puts the WWE channel on the big TV screen, I try to ignore it but after a few minutes find myself watching it avidly. It might seem a bombastic, over-the-top joke, but you can understand how Paige and her family are so infatuated by it and why her participation in the WWE is such a big deal for them.
Inevitably, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson (who also co-produced the movie) gets a walk-on part playing himself. I have no objection to pro-wrestlers like the Rock turning up in films and acting, though I have to say that when it comes to wrestler-actors he (and indeed, Dave Bautista, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and the rest) isn’t fit to kiss the laced-up boots of the mighty Pat Roach or, indeed, Blood and Porridge-favourite Brian Glover.
One other thing – as far as I can determine, this is the second British comedy-sports movie that has featured Vince Vaughan as a hardnosed American promoter who comes to Britain and shakes up a cosy little sporting cottage industry. He’s already played this type in the forgotten Mel Smith-directed Blackball (2003), also starring Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Johnny Vegas and Bernard Cribbins, in which he tries to turn the sleepy British sport of lawn bowls into one of WWE-style loudness and brashness whilst repackaging Kaye’s character as ‘the bad boy of bowls’.
What next? Will Vaughan make one more film in this vein and complete the trilogy? I’d like to see him in a film where he travels to Scotland and tries to turn curling into a brutal and combative sport along the lines of rollerball.
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4