22 Feb 19
During the opening seconds of “Fighting With My Family,” when you see it is a film from WWE Studios, you wonder if it will be one big promotional ad for the big-time professional wrestling offered by World Wrestling Entertainment.
There is that aspect of it, sure, the film using vintage WWE footage at times and showing arenas packed with wrestling-obsessed fans.
However, this movie — based on the life of since-retired WWE Divas champion Paige — is, at its core, a largely satisfying heartfelt comedy that’s at least slightly more about family as it is bodyslams, elbow drops and piledrivers.
Ultimately a biopic about Paige, aka Saraya Bevis, the film’s wider focus is on her family. Hers is a wrestling clan that already was the subject of a documentary, “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family,” which is said to have caught the attention of pro wrestling superstar-turned-action movie giant Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Like Paige, Johnson comes from a wrestling family, and he shepherded this fictionalized version of Paige’s story through the studio company he founded and runs, Seven Bucks Productions.
The first act of “Fighting With My Family” is carried by the big-screen version of the future Paige’s wrestling-devoted household, which, along with then-Saraya (Florence Pugh), consists of brother Zak (Jack Lowden), mother Julia (Lena Headey) and patriarch Ricky (Nick Frost). (Another brother is finishing a prison term as the film begins.) In their native Norwich, England, they run a small-time wrestling association, in which all four wrestle and that serves as a training ground for Zak and Saraya, both of whom have their eyes set on performing in the WWE.
To say this family is entertaining is an understatement, Ricky and Julia being especially delightful as they dole out four-letter words and other colorful language in their thick English accents. To Zak and Saraya, this life — which sees their parents scraping by financially — is perfectly normal.
“Wait, I know you,” a girl of about Saraya’s age says to her on the street as Saraya is selling tickets to an upcoming exhibition. “You’re from that weird family.”
“We’re not weird,” Saraya answers, sounding rather unsure of the assertion.
When a WWE recruiter calls the house to invite Zak and Saraya to a regional audition, the family thinks their dreams are about to come true. However, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), the chief trainer at the WWE’s developmental association, NXT, sees something only in Saraya. She is invited to travel to Orlando, Florida, to further pursue a performing slot; Zak is not.
Although she insists to Hutch she won’t go without Zak, both men urge her to reconsider, which she ultimately does.
And so while Zak is left behind with his girlfriend and their new baby — and begins making bad decision as his dream becomes ever more elusive — Saraya finds herself in the United States with other aspiring pros. On the female side, the pale brunette finds herself up against tanned blondes who don’t have the wrestling background she does but who look better in bikinis, which she fears is what will matter most.
Paige’s journey to the top of this wrestling mountain will not be easy, of course.
Written and directed by Stephen Merchant — who, with Ricky Gervais, created BBC’s “The Office” and “Extras” and who shows up in a minor role in this film — “Fighting With My Family” is better at being funny than at flexing any dramatic muscles. And, thus, it is best early on, with the utterly hilarious Frost (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) carrying much of the comedic load. That said, Headey — whose Julia is a far cry from her “Game of Thrones” character, Cersei, aside from both being strong women who care deeply about their children — is pretty funny, as well.
Once the action lands in Florida, Vaughn (“Hacksaw Ridge,” “Wedding Crashers”) has to pick up the comedic slack, the actor giving us a character in Hutch that conjures memories of Vaughn’s alter ego in 2004’s “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” Hutch is more sincere, though, pushing Paige either to quit or to really push herself. (A nice through-line from Merchant’s script has Hutch trying to explain to a still broken-hearted Paige about why Zak doesn’t have what it takes to become a WWE superstar. The payoff is nice.)
As for the leads, Pugh (“Lady MacBeth”) is easy to root for but not as interesting as you’d hope, and that’s roughly the case with Lowden (“Mary Queen of Scots”), too.
Johnson also appears, as himself, a few times throughout the film. When he’s on screen, “Fighting With My Family” goes from feeling like a little indie film to something almost larger than life, as Johnson himself is. The movie doesn’t need him, but he does cook up a little something for it.
Along the way, “Fighting With My Family” may teach you a few things about pro wrestling, such as wrestler giving a “receipt” to his or her partner during match rehearsals when the other person does something carelessly dangerous and that, apparently, they prefer the word “fixed” to “fake” when it comes to matches. (After all, many of the injuries sustained in the ring are all too real.)
Speaking of wrestling being fixed, in its climactic moment, when Paige wrestles in a big match, “Fighting With My Family” all but wants you to forget about that fact, presenting its fakest moment. It’s not enough to slap the flick with a disqualification, but it’s frustrating.
It’s still a big-screen winner, if not a championship-level contender.
“Fighting With My Family” is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content.