It’s the last day of school at Roosevelt High, and two disgruntled teachers decide to duke it out after the final bell rings in “Fist Fight,” a risible excuse for comedy that treats compulsory education as a joke and violence as a reasonable way to solve problems. In other words, it’s a film perfectly calibrated for the times in which we live, and by far the most disheartening studio-produced movie in recent memory, setting an abysmal example for anyone who goes to school (or the movies, for that matter) still hoping to learn.
Listen carefully, and you can practically hear your brain cells dying during the course of “Fist Fight,” whose principal agenda seems to be how outrageously out-of-control things get at Roosevelt. Anarchy already has the upper hand when idealistic English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) arrives on campus to discover what the students have perpetrated on this most epic of Senior Prank Days — a dubious tradition in which the inmates are granted control of the asylum, so to speak.
In addition to letting a meth-addled horse loose through the halls of the school, the junior practical jokers have Sharpied explicit cartoons on the dry-erase boards, mowed degrading images into the football field, and rigged pornography to play in the school trophy case. “Why aren’t they this ambitious with their classwork?” asks Campbell, though the answer is clear: These retrograde gags are the stunted brain children of screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, whose combined intellect still hasn’t graduated past junior high, where they see women teachers as sex objects (Christina Hendricks embodies their idea of the hot French teacher, who sashays through the halls in slow motion) and the racist typecasting of former N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube as a golden opportunity to drop the line, “Fuck tha police!”
The F-word is by far the most ubiquitous in this profane R-rated parade, which turns on the premise that the kids — disrespectful, drug-dealing, class-cutting, chronic-masturbating little heathens that they are — have pushed the faculty to the breaking point. Ice Cube plays Mr. Strickland, a scary, pointy-bearded disciplinarian who dresses like someone asked him to add a necktie to his “Boyz N the Hood” uniform. When the students are this unruly, the teachers have to stick together, though Campbell draws the line at an incident he witnesses in Strickland’s classroom, when his angry colleague responds to a disruptive student (Austin Zajur, “Delinquent”) by grabbing the ax from its in-case-of-emergency case in the hall and aggressively chopping his desk into splinters.
Clearly, there are scarier things than grizzlies for Department of Education highest bidder Betsy DeVos to worry about in America’s public schools. In what passes for a critique of our already-underfunded system, the filmmakers include a subplot where the school principal (Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad”) has chosen the last day of school to terminate most of the staff. Fearing for his own job, Campbell snitches on Strickland (it’s unfortunate how many of the clichés borrow from prison movies), and in turn, Ice Cube’s character — who amounts to a one-dimensional African-American stereotype — challenges his sniveling white colleague to an old-fashioned fist fight in the parking lot after school.
Campbell has no idea how to handle the threat: He gets nowhere with Roosevelt High’s resident security guard (Kumail Nanjiani) and is laughed off the line by the 911 operator, so he seeks advice from the school’s criminally unqualified guidance counselor, Holly (Jillian Bell), who is far too distracted talking about how badly she covets a jocky student’s teen penis (or “teenis”) to be of much help. It’s a profoundly inappropriate line of humor, and a disappointing misuse of the improv-gifted ex-Groundling: After so hilariously stealing the show in “22 Jump Street,” Bell sees her latest role reduced to a misdemeanor.
Equally under-exploited is Tracy Morgan as Coach Crawford, proud defender of the school’s unbroken losing streak. In his first big-screen role since his accident, Morgan is mostly just there to serve as the butt of several senior pranks, though he doubles as a sounding board for Campbell’s bad ideas. Because “Fist Fight” was spearheaded Richie Keen, who helmed nearly a dozen episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the director already has a rapport with his star, Day, who delivers what amounts to a whinier version of the spineless white guy schtick so often embodied by Jason Bateman these days.
Though his constant sniveling is hard on the ears, Day manages to remain a mostly sympathetic character, even when resorting to extremely unsportsmanlike tactics: trying to plant drugs in Strickland’s classroom, using a fire hydrant in the final throwdown. The movie’s premise is that guys like this might actually benefit from a good fight, and that bullying should be confronted by any means necessary (the film’s biggest — and most obvious — laugh owes to a parental-advisory moment at his daughter’s talent show, in which child actress Alexa Nisenson shows her screen dad how to be assertive).
But “Fist Fight’s” underlying philosophy is all wrong. It’s humor derives from welcoming unwelcome behavior into the school sphere, and from allowing conflict to escalate far beyond any reasonable extreme. Call it “Welcome to the Blackboard Jungle” or “Goodbye, Mr. Cube” — the movie may have been hatched in open defiance of the inspirational-teacher genre, but it’s effectively plagiarizing from a different playbook, already beaten to a pulp by such no-class comedies as “School for Scoundrels” and “Vice Principals.”