The Foot Fist Way has been trying to break into theaters since clawing its way down film-fest row, beginning at Sundance in '06. It took Will Ferrell and his comedy life partner Adam McKay to get distributors interested; notes the trailer: The men behind Anchorman's desk and Talladega Nights' wheel “watched it at least 20 times,” suggesting grown men with far too much free time on their soft, manicured hands.
Nonetheless, it's easy to see why Ferrell and McKay, who skew darker and dirtier on their Funny or Die Web site, were attracted to first-timer Jody Hill's film about delusional, sad-sack tae kwon do instructor Fred Simmons, who is more or less Ron Burgundy in a white robe and black belt, Ricky Bobby with a porno mustache and a gaggle of tweenager acolytes, or any other Ferrell sports-movie dumbass injected with a few extra brain cells (that eventually go to waste anyway). Played by Danny McBride, Fred is a strip-mall hero — the “king of the demo,” he reminds his pimple-faced pupils — for whom showing off his cinder-block-breaking skills to parking-lot gawkers is “my fucking life.” But Fred is less like Napoleon Dynamite's martial-arts nimrod Rex Kwon Do and more like Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mike Terry from David Mamet's recent Redbelt: an instructor who takes seriously — or at least talks seriously about — the tenets of his combat technique, while being completely oblivious to what happens just outside his storefront kingdom. He considers himself a warrior; meanwhile, the world is kicking his ass left, right, and sideways.
The Foot Fist Way, roughly the English translation for “tae kwon do,” is shot mock-doc style. It's probably best that way, since nothing much happens in the film as it ambles from episode to episode — or, more to the point, from sketch to sketch. (This thing would have made a tremendous series of Webisodes.) There's only the loosest of plots, involving Fred's bleached-blonde wife (Mary Jane Bostic), who keeps among her “work papers” a few Xeroxes of her chest and ass, made around the same time she gave her boss a handjob, which, c'mon, she figures is really no big deal. The revelation of her infidelity sends Fred into a tailspin, though it really just provides the punching bag with further reason to act like a douchebag.
Unlike the rubes in Ferrell's sports-comedy canon, Fred isn't entirely feckless. He knows his shit, or at least sounds like he does. But he's also mean-spirited and boorish — more loathsome than laughable, somebody just this side of turning into real trouble. He commands his students to live by the five tenets of tae kwon do — courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit — but exhibits nary a single hint that he actually knows what those words mean. He barks at — and even swings at — children, makes wholly inappropriate and painfully uncomfortable passes at would-be female students, and occasionally condones the use of violence on the elderly during sparring sessions. You can almost understand why his wife fucks around on him: The guy's an asshole.
Which is why, halfway through The Foot Fist Way, it struck me that the film's writers (Hill, Ben Best, and McBride) didn't intend this as comedy at all, but as tragedy — the McKay-Ferrell franchise turned inside out. Ferrell and McKay have made their bones collecting egomaniacs whose success is directly disproportionate to their self-awareness. Only they serve up their dunce-cap heroes as ineffectual clowns usually humbled by slapstick circumstances: the curse word on a teleprompter, a figure-skating mishap, an underwear-clad meltdown on a racetrack. Ron and Ricky (not to mention the characters that Ferrell plays in Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro) are putzes — affable, harmless putzes.
But Fred is a whole different brand of dope. There's very little to like about him, and I have my suspicions that McBride and his collaborators actually don't. This Fist-ful of writers makes Fred immune to humbling — not even a proper ass-kicking, for which he's begging, sets him straight. And McBride, whose burgeoning career in such films as Hot Rod and Pineapple Express began with this performance, resists any effort to get us to root for the guy. It's not even a question of liking Fred; it's more a matter of tolerating him.
A colleague insists The Foot Fist Way is just another Napoleon Dynamite, a condescending portrait of the fringe-dwelling loner. But it's far more resonant than Napoleon, because Fred is far more than just some exaggerated dweeb or spastic bore, and McBride doesn't play him like a cartoon character. There's something real about this guy — and something real nasty about him, too, something that lingers after the movie has choked a few laughs out of an audience that won't know whether to pity Fred or punch him. Truthfully, The Foot Fist Way is no different from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office: This is irritainment, something you snicker at while cringing and covering your eyes, praying that this guy never gets loose in the real world, when, in fact, he's your next-door neighbor. Or, God forbid, you.