The Foot Fist Way is a semi-hilarious nonformula movie that makes you realize why formulas are born. It's a bit like The Bad News Bears of tae kwon do, except it's really all about the coach (Danny R. McBride), a painfully limited macho-man who considers himself "the king of the demo": a paragon at stunts designed to swell enrollments in his strip-mall karate class.
The movie picks him up just when his wife (Mary Jane Bostic), a Playboy cartoon of over-ripe voluptuousness, takes a job, leading to such unwanted novelties in his life as dinner guests. Everything for the coach goes downhill from there, and we watch, aghast, as his personal issues erode his discipline and infect his working relationships, notably with a lovely young recruit who connects with him - in his dreams.
The director, Jody Hill, structures the movie around the coach violating the tenets of his tae kwon do code, especially courtesy, self-control and integrity. What gives the comedy its much-needed hint of humanity is that somehow the big lug works his way back to them.
The Foot Fist Way has a choke hold on masculine delusions of strength and competence: The coach just expresses these delusions more broadly, vulgarly and uproariously than other men. Hill co-wrote the script with McBride and Ben Best, who plays a repulsive, over-the-hill movie or direct-to-DVD "star." All three are wizards at capturing crude insults that cut the insulted down to size.
For much of The Foot Fist Way, they hit on a new comic subject: the way many self-styled "men of action" do most of their living in the brain. And as director, writer and actor, Hill comes off as the rare triple threat who can bring comic force to every function. As a performer, she provides a movie highlight with his portrayal of the coach's best friend: a 5th-degree black belt who sees himself as a mystic warrior living on the wild side. He's so far out he seems to be walking on his own hot air.
But Hill, McBride and Best miscalculate when they give the coach's students short shrift. As this film's warped-microscope study of stunted male characters grows more withering, an audience looks on with relief at the live, spontaneous expressions of the students, especially the younger ones, who are open in every way - open to experience and alive to possibilities. The subplots about a boy who alternates tae kwon do with psychiatric sessions and another who wants to be the coach's apprentice are too wispy or predictable to amount to much. The filmmakers' hearts are with the adult walking wounded.
The Bad News Bears remains a classic American comedy because, without sentimentality, it balances the bitterness of a Little League coach with the surging vitality of his youthful misfit charges: They bring the adults hope without really trying, and when they do try, their efforts are exhilarating.
In The Foot Fist Way, Hill offers some hints of hope near the end, but these glimmers come too little too late and are too little. And that's too bad, because hope may be the essential ingredient of grass-roots American comedy. Emily Dickinson called hope "the thing with feathers." It's flighty and its ticklish, and a little more of it would made The Foot Fist Way lighter on its feet.
Watch a preview of The Foot Fist Way at baltimoresun.com/fist
The Foot Fist Way
(Paramount Vantage) Starring Danny R. McBride. Directed by Jody Hill. Rated R for for strong language and some sexual content. Time 87 minutes.