The visual style resembles a grainy home movie, the protagonist is an arrogant nerd and the story seems to have been made up on the spot.
Still, there are some delicious, mean-spirited snickers in “The Foot Fist Way.” A cheap, rambunctious do-it-yourself comedy made in 19 days for $70,000, it is the first film distributed by Will Ferrell, who undoubtedly recognized a kindred comic sensibility. Fred Simmons, the tae kwon do king of Concord, is just the sort of pompous boob Ferrell has built his career playing.
We're introduced to Fred (played with beefy cluelessness by co-writer Danny McBride) as he drills his class in the five tenets of tae kwon do: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control and Fighting Spirit.
Given that he's the kind of instructor who tells his students “jiu jitsu sucks,” you can guess that he's going to have a tough time living up to those exalted ideals. As we follow him through various professional and personal setbacks, we get a flinchingly funny character study of a self-satisfied schmo.
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The film – shot by Concord's Jody Hill in the summer of 2005 (he also co-wrote the film) – has barely enough plot to synopsize. There is a change of fortune, and our protagonist, following the blueprint of a redemption drama, loses everything but saves his soul. But once we relax into the fact that not much is going to happen, we can enjoy the film's little moments of nutso inspiration.
The movie mocks yet sympathizes with Fred, a strip-mall sensei who's the worst possible mentor anyone could choose. He lives in a duplex with his too-blond, too-tanned wife Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic), a faded beauty who describes extreme inebriation as being “Myrtle Beach drunk,” a phrase hinting she knows of what she speaks.
When he discovers that Suzie has cuckolded him, Fred goes into a crisis. Rather than explore why she might have strayed, he takes a road trip to meet his hero, macho B-movie icon Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (co-writer Ben Best). Fred makes a deal with the arrogant star to attend his school's year-end testing ceremony, a decision that makes his life many times worse.
The film is chaotic and self-indulgent, but so modest that you're inclined to forgive it. There are odd little gems of observation, like the exchange between Fred and Suzie side by side on a mall bench when he joshingly declares “My shoes could beat your shoes in a fight.”
There's a tinge of sadness in the comedy. Fred is a lost soul speeding toward irrelevance, a man past his prime in every way, trying to impress a young woman with a sparring trophy he won over a decade ago. It's impossible to laugh and keep your distance. We are forced to acknowledge, horrified but fascinated, what a mess Fred is making of his life. Other movies let us enjoy ridicule; this one exacts a cost.
There's a lighter side to the film, however. The kids in Fred's class show us the sheer joy of physical release. Leaping around blissfully, eyes sparkling with delight, they offer a sweet counterbalance to a film in which one character spends her workday compiling lists of which colleague is most likely to start a killing spree.