As Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson forges ahead into yet another year as arguably Hollywood’s biggest movie star, here comes Fighting With My Family to remind you where he honed his world-conquering charisma and ability to connect with massive audiences across the globe. Wrestling may be largely fixed and utterly absurd, but its mix of silliness and big budget glamour has a knack for producing great characters. One of these characters is Paige (real name Saraya Knight and played here by Florence Pugh) a Norwich teenager who revolutionised women’s role in the WWE.
Charting the rise of a wrestler to global stardom, Fighting With My Family’s story initially feels like an odd fit for British comedy hero Stephen Merchant, who writes and directs, but he manages, in the first act at least, to make the film his own. Saraya’s wrestling-obsessed family is very funny, especially Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her parents, and there are some great gags in the early scenes reminiscent of Merchant’s work on Ricky Gervais’s shows. The supporting Norwich cast are charming and Merchant’s script keeps a careful balance between the boisterous hopes and dreams of the characters and the depressing reality that most of them are likely never to leave Norfolk.
The move to America, after Saraya impresses WWE coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn, basically doing a softer version of his Hacksaw Ridge performance) at a London tryout, is where things get shakier. We’re suddenly in the realm of an utterly rote sports story, never deviating for a second from the exact path you expect it to take. The sense of place that was established so well back in Norwich falls away, replaced by glaringly bright and generic gyms and beaches in Florida that lack any sort of identity. Barring a couple of jolly cameos from The Rock himself, the fun factor is drained in favour of sports underdog tropes and endlessly repetition of the same dramatic beats.
Pugh is charismatic in the lead, but not given anything very complex to do, so the show is stolen comedically by Frost and Headey and dramatically by Jack Lowden as Saraya’s brother Zak. Even more into wrestling than his sister, he has talent but lacks the special spark that makes Saraya a star. Left behind to coach the local kids and look after his upper middle class girlfriend and her new baby in a dead end job, his passion turns to resentment and apathy, and Lowden does good work showing the dark spiral that these feelings lead to.
As has always been the case with Merchant’s work, Fighting With My Family is at its best when it drills down into the specifics of funny but otherwise unremarkable British lives and relationships. Whenever he breaks away from this, the film suffers, and while it’s always serviceably entertaining, you often find yourself missing the zippy, witty writing that dries up around the halfway mark.