Charlie Day is returning to the big screen this month to star in Warner Brothers’ new comedy, “Fist Fight.” This marks another venture into filmmaking for the actor, adding to his growing filmography that includes both “Horrible Bosses” films, “Monsters University” and “The Lego Movie.” Since gaining deserved recognition for his hilarious portrayal of the illiterate janitor Charlie Kelly on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Day has been a rising comedy superstar.
In “Fist Fight” he reteams with frequent “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” director and Chicago native Richie Keen for a new high school-centric comedy. The film follows Andy Campbell (played by Day), a mild-mannered family man who tries to keep the peace on a particularly rowdy final day of school amid senior pranks. Campbell accidentally crosses the line with the toughest teacher in the school, Ron Strickland, played by Ice Cube.
I attended an early screening of the film and sat down with Day and Keen, who were particularly excited to be in Chicago.
“Charlie’s never been here. It’s my hometown, so I get to take him to The Weiner’s Circle and Lou Malnati’s and show him around my favorite town,” Keen said.
Day was no less excited.
“I’ve been wanting to come to Chicago for years,” Day said. “Everyone’s been saying to me today, ‘Why do you have so much energy? Why are you in such a good mood?’ And it’s because I’m so excited to finally be in Chicago. I want to have more time here — I want to go to a comedy show…the theater…a baseball game. I’ll be back for sure.”
The premise is silly, but the film knows what it is and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Keen knew his vision the moment he read the script — he envisioned the film as a “rated ‘R’ John Hughes movie.”
“To me, it was a prison riot movie — the guards versus the inmates. Only here the kids are messing with the teachers,” said Keen.
Day said he saw the film as an opportunity to try a different character.
“It was fun to play a character who can read and write, because I can read and write,” Day joked in comparing his roles in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Fist Fight.”
Both Day and Keen knew, however, that the film would need a strong supporting cast to work. After Day signed on, Keen went looking for supporting players. He casted a diverse group, including Ice Cube, Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”), Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Tracy Morgan (“30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live”) and Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”). Many of these choices, Keen said, didn’t come together as initially anticipated.
“Jillian’s role was originally written for a guy. Tracy’s part was written for a young, white guy,” Keen said. “Kumail didn’t even have a role, so I just called him and said, ‘Dude, I got to get you in this movie. When can I get you from ‘Silicon Valley?’ I wanted people to think, ‘This is such an original group of people to be together.’”
Day used each actor’s style to his comedic advantage.
“It was fun, because we all came from different backgrounds. There was a new comedic energy with each actor,” Day said.
It’s the characters that do the heavy comedic lifting in “Fist Fight,” and character-focused comedy is something Day has mastered.
“[Human beings] are really interested in human behavior more so than circumstances,” Day explained. “Circumstances can get you so far…but it’s the personalities behind those circumstances that make storytelling so interesting. Life isn’t generic. If you don’t find idiosyncratic behavior, it doesn’t feel real. Look at the election. No matter how you feel, you have to admit that the personalities of the world we’re living in are what’s making it so provocative.”
This examination and deep understanding of comedy is shared by Day’s director, making them a strong pairing.
“Your comedy is only as strong as your characters. Without the right characters, who cares if [Day and Cube] are getting in a fight,” said Keen. “When I watch comedy that isn’t character based, I laugh, but if you asked me a week later, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what happened. What always sticks with me is the journey of a character.”
By the end of the film, Day’s character arc becomes clear and Campbell shows growth. This journey takes place in one day — the last day of school before summer break. Tensions run high throughout the film and the stakes are constantly raised as we lead into the long-anticipated fight — a surprisingly entertaining one at that. Director Richie Keen understood exactly how to handle the mounting suspense.
“We wanted the whole movie to feel like a boiling pot. [How to raise the stakes] was the biggest question I kept asking myself as director,” said Keen.
This building suspense is achieved due to the sheer amount of attention the fight is given — there are only a few moments that take us away from the buildup to the fight. The ending of “Fist Fight” is a fun, entertaining climax to an easy-to-watch comedy. There is nothing groundbreaking or particularly special about the film, but the charisma of Day and his stellar supporting cast will keep viewers’ attention for the majority of the runtime. “Fist Fight” opens nationwide on Feb. 17.