Movie Review – Fist Fight vs. Catfight
Two movies about two people going at each other and physically trying to hurt one another came out this year within a few weeks of each other. Fist Fight got a wide release on February 17 and Catfight got a limited release on March 3rd. Both are comedies. Fist Fight is more a straight-forward comedy with comedians or comedic actors doing their usual shtick. Catfight is more a satire with dramatic actors pushing themselves and pushing boundaries. Both start with allies or friends who turn against each other. One is seemingly strong and the other is seemingly weak. Fist Fight is about the weak character learning to be strong. Catfight is a back-and-forth of the weak character becoming strong and the strong character becoming weak until the two are on equal footing. Fist Fight is a single trajectory, whereas Catfight is more a roller coaster ride.
Fist Fight was written by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser with a story credit by Max Greenfield of the TV series New Girl. It was directed by Richie Keen who’s done a lot of TV directing, and the premise feels like something that might be the logline for a silly sitcom. Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) stars as Andy Campbell, a high school teacher who is a bit of a pushover who tells the truth about a violent episode in another teacher’s class, which gets that other teacher fired. Ice Cube (Friday and Boyz n the Hood) co-stars as Ron Strickland, a very angry teacher who rules his students with an iron fist and who is the one who gets fired. As revenge, he says he’s going to beat up Andy after school, so the entire film is Andy trying to avoid this fight.
Catfight was written and directed by Onur Tukel. It focuses on two women who used to be friends who have drifted into two, different, socioeconomic circles. Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) stars as Veronica, the trophy wife of a wealthy banker with a teenage son. She’s not really a snob but she discourages her son from pursuing his art. She instead wants him to focus on a career that will make him wealthy. Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco and Wag the Dog) co-stars as Ashley, a lesbian artist who is trying to have a baby with her uber-sensitive, overly-protective, environmentalist wife, Lisa, played by Alicia Silverstone (Clueless and Batman & Robin), but she’s struggling financially and in terms of anyone even recognizing her work. Veronica’s husband hosts a party where Ashley bartends. The two run into each other and end up offending each other severely. Tukel doesn’t delay satisfaction. Keen holds the fight until the end of the film, but Tukel has the fight occur in the first 20 minutes.
But, the problem with Fist Fight is that the whole thing feels so contrived, and Cube comes across as the angry black man stereotype with no real dimension or nuance to him. Cube’s first appearance is him carrying a baseball bat down the school hallway. It was reminiscent of Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me (1989), except Freeman was able to convey more depth to his bat-wielding character than Cube either can or is allowed. Based on lines of dialogue, Keen and the writers seem hellbent on Cube basically playing himself or the screen persona associated with him instead of an actual human being. All that’s left is the low-brow tactics of foul language, toilet humor and easy drug and sex jokes that the average high school student could have concocted.
It seems as if the point for Fist Fight is to criticize the public school system, but if it wanted to say that the teachers didn’t have what they needed to do their jobs, the movie failed. It never comes across as if the students who are seniors are at all in fear or worried about their future. The teachers certainly aren’t worried. The movie would rather propagate a lame gimmick of it being senior prank day, which neither informs the narrative or aids in the comedy.
Another issue with Fist Fight is that it ends up glamorizing or in fact celebrating the violence it spends the whole time trying to avoid. One would think that given that the entire film takes place in a school and involves teachers that the conclusion would lean more toward education and peaceful solutions, but the film is a bit hypocritical.
Catfight, however, doesn’t glamorize or celebrate its violence, which is ironic because there’s more, actual, physical violence here. At first, it felt like it would be like the Oscar-nominated film from Argentina called Wild Tales, and its segment titled “El más fuerte,” where the movie would just be about trivial disputes escalating into something ridiculous and over-the-top. No, it’s not that. Tukel actually has something substantial to say here. Tukel is commenting and satirizing class warfare in the United States, especially how it relates to the war on terror.
What’s brilliant about Catfight is that Tukel never sides with one person. In Keen’s film, we’re clearly supposed to be on Andy’s side and he’s the one about whom we’re supposed to care. This wouldn’t matter in an action flick or even a Rocky film where there are meant to be clear good guys and bad guys. Except, we’re also pushed to like Ron by the end of Fist Fight, but the movie doesn’t do enough to flesh him out and balance our understanding of Ron as a person, so it doesn’t work.
In Catfight though, we get a balance of understanding of what Veronica is going through and what’s at stake for her, as well as the same for Ashley. Neither is painted as all good or all bad. Each woman has her own issues. We laugh at each. We cry with each. We embrace both as much as we dismiss both. We like both as much as we loathe both. In that, one might wonder who we should root for or who should we want to win and who we should want to lose. The answer is both and neither because ultimately we’re meant to question the use of violence at all.
Catfight also makes better use of its supporting cast, including Craig Bierko (Unreal) as a Craig Ferguson-type and Ariel Kavoussi as Sally, an aspiring artist who might seem like a punching bag but is perhaps the most sinister of them all, even with her baby doll voice. Dylan Baker (The Good Wife and The Americans) is also given a great bit as a comatose doctor.
Rated R for language, sexual content/nudity and drug material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.
Not Rated but contains language, sexual references, alcohol use and brutal violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.