Florence and the Machine
Apparently we are all becoming much more discriminating consumers of stuff, no longer so blindly loyal to particular brands, but making informed and intelligent choices. Well, that may be true for some people, but if I made intelligent, discriminating and selective choices I wouldn't go to the cinema eighty times a year, and where would we all be then?
Certainly, there are some people whose new films I will turn up to almost without fail, regardless of the subject matter, mainly because Ive consistently enjoyed their stuff in the past. Firmly ensconced on the list of those so favoured are genial Dwayne Johnson and (from a different kind of performance tradition) fabulous Florence Pugh. Get these two together and I will be there like a shot, even if the movie involved is a women's-wrestling-themed comedy-drama biopic, not something I would necessarily want to go anywhere near.
Actually, don't bother, for all of this has already occurred, in the form of Stephen 'Goggle-eyed Freak' Merchant's Fighting with My Family. The pairing of Florence and Dwayne looks almost natural when set against the highly peculiar group financing this film, which includes MGM, the usually-credible British company Film 4, and a major wrestling-entertainment corporation. It all makes a certain form of sense when you consider the story.
Fabulous Florence plays Saraya Knight, part of a family of wrestlers – go with it – operating the 'World Association of Wrestling' in Norwich, England. Her father (Nick Frost) is an alcoholic former armed robber who credits his discovery of wrestling with giving him a positive outlet for his violent tendencies, but on the whole they are a positive and loving family (when they are not clobbering seven bells out of each other in the ring, anyway).
Opportunity knocks when Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are given the chance to try out for – let me just check my notes – something called 'the WWE', which is apparently a wrestling-entertainment company. There they meet gruff but wise coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and passing superstar Dwayne Johnson (Dwayne Johnson). Saraya, wrestling under the name of Paige, makes the cut and is signed for the youth wing of the WWE – but Zak is left totally despondent when he is not selected. Saraya flies off to Florida to train with the rest of the wannabes, leaving her brother in despair. Can she make it to the top of the pile in the WWE? Can her relationship with her family take the accompanying strain?
As you can perhaps discern, there is rather more of Florence than of Dwayne in this movie – a sizeable percentage of Johnson's on-screen contribution (he also produced it) is in the trailer – but the big man's scenes are as charismatic and funny as you might expect. For most of the rest of the movie the comic heavy lifting is done by Nick Frost, who fully deploys his always-impressive ability to steal scenes: he even has a good try at upstaging genial Dwayne, which is no mean feat.
The trailer for this movie certainly focuses on some of the more comedic scenes, and with a director like Merchant – still really best known as a comedian, despite more dramatic appearances in more recent films – you might certainly expect this to be light, (perhaps literally) knockabout stuff, playing up the general absurdity of entertainment-wrestling.
However, this expectation would fail to take into account the involvement of the real-life WWE in the making of this film: entertainment-wrestling is their meal ticket, and it is not to be mocked or satirised in the slightest. Instead, what we end up with is essentially a fairly formulaic sports movie with added funny bits here and there. As such it requires proper acting to really work – and fortunately, it gets it, from Pugh, Vaughn and Lowden. These are really actors playing stock characters in a familiar story, but they do so with skill, and the more dramatic scenes of the film do have a surprising degree of heft to them.
Dramatic is not necessarily synonymous with truthful or authentic, of course, and even as I was watching this movie I found myself growing rather suspicious of the story it was telling me, simply because it fits rather too well into the underdog-makes-good narrative arc. Even the most cursory research indicates that the film's connection with reality doesn't extend very much further than the fact that there is indeed a wrestler from Norwich who used to fight under the nom de canvas Paige.
On the other hand, the film is fairly honest about the sheer amount of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in American entertainment-wrestling, and the ruthlessly competitive and unforgiving nature of the machine – it chews people up and spits them out, and there are always fresh volunteers to replace them. Of course, the film doesn't exactly state this in so many words, and its depiction of entertainment-wrestling in general and the WWE in particular is essentially benign. The main problem with Fighting with My Family as a sports movie comes from the fact it concerns something which is – oh dear, I'm going to have to take shelter in the bunker again – not actually a real sport. Paige's rise to success in the WWE is secured after her defeat of another fighter, which the film depicts as a tense struggle resulting in an against-the-odds victory. When, as even the film admits, there are few things in the world less in doubt than the result of a wrestling-entertainment bout. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that the WWE makes a lot of money out of treating its fans as idiots, but at this point it felt like the movie was doing so to me, and I do not find that easy to forgive.
Still, the contrast between Norwich (sweaty church halls, dingy gyms, an New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and Florida (much better hair and teeth) is fun, and it is solidly if predictably structured and generally well-played – although Florence Pugh barely needs to get into third gear to ace her character; you can tell she has many more just waiting to be deployed when she gets to headline a film with a bit more nuance to it.
Wrestling fans will probably find Fighting with My Family rather more captivating than I did (there were quite a few, mostly old ladies, in the screening with me, all cheering and expressing sympathy in the right places), but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it a lot. Maybe there is a bit less Dwayne Johnson than I would have expected, but there are lots of other enjoyable elements, even if as a whole it doesn't entirely ring true. But hey – that's entertainment-wrestling.
Also This Week...
...Cold Pursuit, a Liam Neeson dark comedy thriller which arguably disproves that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Civic-minded snow-plough driver becomes murderous vigilante after family tragedy, things get out of control. Eventually settles on a tone rather like that of a movie made by one of the McDonagh brothers, but not really consistently funny or intelligent enough to completely work. Engagingly odd, but not really satisfying; the violence may be an issue for some viewers.
...On the Basis of Sex – sounds like the recipe for a failed marriage, but is actually that biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg I mentioned last week. Felicity Jones plays the notorious RBG with a finely-judged mixture of steely earnestness and earnest steeliness; the film mostly focuses on one gender-related tax case from the 1970s. The performances are actually pretty good, especially Armie Hammer as Mr RBG, and its message is impeccable, but the actual story is honestly not that interesting and the problem is it's exactly the film you would expect it to be. Passes the time pleasantly but hardly inspires.