Maybe you can, but I surely cannot, resist a film whose production entities include Britain’s Film4 (12 Years a Slave, Secrets & Lies, Trainspotting, etc.) and WWE Studios (sweaty oiled men pretending to pummel each other for entertainment and profit). Fighting with My Family puts a British sense of humor inside a chassis of American gusto. It’s as if Hugh Grant became a NASCAR driver.
The title, taken from a 2012 documentary about a real English family, is more literal than figurative: Saraya “Paige” Bevis (Florence Pugh) grew up in a working-class clan of pro wrestlers in Norwich, England. As a little kid, she is seen complaining to Mum and Dad that her big brother is choking her. Dad (an ursine Nick Frost) tells the boy he’s not doing it right; mum (Lena Headey) challenges the girl: “What are you going to do about it?” Then mum and dad eagerly watch the action.
As the kids grow into adults, the family stars in cheesy pro-wrestling exhibitions in small-town England. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant, the co-creator with Ricky Gervais of The Office and previously the co-director of the 2010 movie Cemetery Junction, Fighting with My Family is best in these very funny early scenes, which have some of the oddball spirit and freshness of The Full Monty along with the same appreciation for the scruffy, glamour-challenged corners of England. Merchant himself appears briefly as a shocked upper-middle-class dad whose daughter becomes pregnant by Zak (Jack Lowden), Saraya’s brother. He and his staid, tweedy wife try to maintain their composure at the table with the wrestling ruffians and their loutish dad, who confesses he once did eight years in prison. What for? “Violence, mostly.”
As adults, Saraya and the strapping Zak try out at a World Wrestling Entertainment event in London where they get tips on how to make it from a famous wrestler called the Rock. The Rock is played by an actor named Dwayne Johnson. I’m not sure he quite nails the part. He seems nervous, as though living up to the role is too intimidating.
Anyway, the tryout (it’s more like an audition) convinces a WWE coach (Vince Vaughn, who is funny again) that Saraya is worth a spot in a training program, but Zak isn’t. With some regrets, she heads off to training camp in Florida, where her Goth look doesn’t quite match the bikini-model vibe of the other girls. Vaughn has a great time spoofing hard-nosed trainers. (“Look to your left,” he tells the recruits. “To your right. Before you leave Orlando, one of you will be a stripper.”) Saraya, rechristening herself Paige, struggles to fit in. Around the pool with the blondes, they tell her things like, “I love your accent — you sound like a Nazi in a movie!” If they look like Kate Upton, she more closely resembles Ozzy Osbourne. Yet, in a snappy twist, it turns out that the bikini models are kinder and more thoughtful competitor-colleagues than she is.
Much of this territory is familiar from the Netflix series GLOW, about the 1980s spandex squad called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, but that series became so gunked up with female empowerment and virtue-signaling that it might as well have been called Sister Sludge. Merchant manages to constantly tweak expectations so the laughs keep coming, at least until the movie slows down in a more formula-bound second half. Paige suffers not one but two attacks of self-doubt, one of which effectively shuts down the fun for a solid ten minutes on a detour to nowhere that involves checking in on Zak’s issues, though he doesn’t really matter.
Moreover, as though ordered to switch from humor to heart, Merchant in the last half hour stops subverting clichés and submits to them, shaping the closing scenes to fit the underdog-sports-movie formula, complete with a surprisingly earnest training montage that is both tired and nonsensical. (In the early going we’re told that Paige is the only one with actual athletic experience and that the other girls are just cheerleaders and models; so how come they all seem so much stronger and faster on the obstacle course?) In the climactic scenes the film takes on the feel of a promotional effort for the WWE instead of an eccentric British take on the spectacle. Really, are we supposed to care who “wins” a staged match?