MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘Fighting With My Family’ surprises as feel-good, family film of the year so far


I couldn’t have been more stunned if The Rock had laid me out with “The People’s Elbow” after watching writer-director Stephen Merchant’s latest movie “Fighting With My Family.”

I expected to have a few laughs and to enjoy some silly antics from a movie about young British woman attempting to fulfill her dream of becoming WWE professional wrestler. What I definitely didn’t expect to see was the feel-good, family film of the year so far.

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The film starring Florence Pugh as Saraya “Paige” Bevis is funny, but it’s also heartfelt, touching, and even a little bit sweet as it follows Paige on her journey from wrestling in a small-time, family wrestling production in Norwich England to training in Florida for a shot at making the big time as one of the WWE Divas. It’s based on the upbringing and early career of the wrestler Paige.

Paige’s upbringing was no doubt rough and tumble with her playing the role of her brother Zak’s (Jack Lowden) sparring partner before she actually begins performing in her mum and dad’s wrestling show.

Zak is the family promotion’s star. Trained from childhood for a shot at the big time by his dad “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and mum “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey), he’s to be the family’s way out of poverty, and Paige is along for the ride.

Though Rowdy Ricky did eight years in the pen for “violent crimes” and “Sweet Saraya” grew up on the streets, they are loving, doting parents who use their gym as a boy’s club of sorts to train kids of all ages to wrestle and to keep them out of at least some trouble. Zak is particularly gifted with the kids, helping them feel wanted and providing them a sense of purpose with his hands on coaching all the while training to reach his dream.

Paige is right there with him. Like Zak, she’s tough and skilled enough to earn an audition for the WWE’s development program when the promotion stages a show in London.

The tryout is brief and tough. Paige is the only wrestler to earn an invite from trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) to the WWE’s wrestling school. Paige lobbies for Zak to come too, but he lacks “the spark” that Morgan sees in the young woman.

Once in the U.S., Paige deals with doubts, fears, and loneliness as she works in the Divas’ training program. She has skill but struggles with wrestling within the WWE system as opposed to her family’s promotion.

The film is surprising strong with a tight script by Merchant, whose clear story-telling style allows the entire cast to shine in a film that charms as it provokes laughs, tears, and cheers.

Vaughn lends excellent support as Paige’s tough but knowing wrestling coach. He retains the fast-talking attitude that made him a star, but plays the role with a tad more subtlety than he has most of his comedic roles.

Likewise, Dwayne Johnson adds a jolt to the movie playing himself in several scenes where he not only adds star power but authenticity to the film while reminding us why he became so popular in the first place.

The movie works so well, and though it is predictable, it’s such a pleasure to watch that I never even worried about it. Thanks to the fine character work in the script and from the cast, the film never gave me a moment to quibble.

Merchant, co-writer and co-director of the original British version of “The Office,” knows his craft. There’s not a false note in the film. The movie has me eagerly looking forward to his next project.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 47 min.
Grade: B+

Classic Corner

Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born (1954)

A Star is Born
Director-actor Bradley Cooper’s latest version of “A Star is Born” is one of the nominees for Best Picture in the 2019 Academy Awards at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC. It’s the fourth version of the story by that title, and it features fine performances by Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta) and Cooper in the leading roles. Gaga likely will win a best actress Oscar for her performance.

The movie is good, but I didn’t care for the film’s climax, which I won’t reveal. No doubt this is because there is a change from the original three films that is more shocking but not as artful. In the first three film versions from 1937, 1954, and 1976, the climax is a bit more subtle, while the Cooper-directed climax is like killing an ant with a sledgehammer.

The earlier endings are slightly more ambiguous, leaving the audience the opportunity to paint between the lines. Cooper’s choice, again, hits the audience like a ton of bricks. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever.

I prefer the traditional climax and the 1937 and 1954 versions of “A Star is Born” to the current version. But, that opinion is totally subjective, and no doubt it was influenced from seeing the other films first.

However, I much prefer the current version to the 1976 film which starred Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles. The 1976 film did modernize the story for the times, but it was difficult watch.

The 1937 version stars Janet Gaynor as the diamond-in-the-rough actress who eclipses her mentor/lover Frederic March as his alcoholism is destroying his career. It’s a great movie that tugs at your heart, and it gets credit for being first.

However, THE version of “A Star is Born” to see is the 1954 classic starring Judy Garland and James Mason. With it, you get the same love story at the heart of the other three versions, but you also get a bravura performance by Garland, impeccably directed by George Cukor.

Many feel it is the best work of Garland’s magnificent career. Garland was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Grace Kelly for film called “The Country Girl.”

Hindsight, of course is 20/20, but it didn’t take the great Groucho Marks long to make a judgment. He called Garland’s loss to Kelly “the biggest robbery since Brink’s,” referring to the 1950 armed robbery that was the largest in American history with more than $2 million in cash, checks, money orders, and other securities stolen.

Turner Classic Movies is televising an “A Star is Born” double feature of the 1937 and 1954 versions respectively at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday night.