It’s hard to look at the poster for Knucklehead (2010) and not assume this movie will suck. Yep, that’s Big Show/Paul Wight in his undies, with nuns, in a boxing ring. It doesn’t build much of a case for why you should spend an hour and 40 minutes of your life on it.
I think they could have made any of the several films they were trying to make here and could have told an entertaining story, if they had just committed. It’s all the hesitant, half-way efforts – to be a gross-out comedy, a heart-warming underdog story, an ironic sports movie – and because of that, it fails to be good at anything.
Walter Krunk (Wight) is a 35-year-old man who grew up in an orphanage and has never been out in the world. We meet him at the orphanage’s performance of The Wizard of Oz, as he is lowered on ropes into the scene, playing Glynda the Good Witch. The rope system goes awry, and he ends up spinning and swinging all around the stage, knocking all the sets over and frightening all the kids. "That’s the joke," as they say.
The nun in charge of these proceedings, Sister Francesca (Wendie Malick), is furious with him, for some reason – apparently this show just had to be a success so that kids could be adopted by potential parents in the audience. I guess parents don’t want kids who haven’t proven themselves on the stage, or something. Walter’s protector and champion is Mary (Melora Hardin), who runs the orphanage in conjunction with the nunnery; she defends him to Francesca, who worries that she should have pushed him out into the real world years ago. We never get a clear explanation of why he’s been so severely sheltered.
Soon after, we meet Walter’s best friend, a 10-year-old boy named Henry (Kurt Doss). After some completely random farting "humor" (apparently farting is hilarious simply because it happens, with no context), Walter accidentally sets the kitchen on fire when he leaves a pan on the stove. The orphanage is informed that they have ten days to raise the money to fix the kitchen, or they’ll be shut down and the kids will all be sent off "into the system."
At the same time, we see Eddie Sullivan (Mark Feuerstein)’s story developing. He is a sports manager in deep with a bookie. He needs to get a fighter and coach him to greatness to win the big match in New Orleans in a few weeks so he can pay his debt. His bookie, Memphis Earl (Dennis Farina) seems at first to want Sullivan to succeed to that he can pay back the money he owes, but then he and his own fighter, Redrum (Lester Speight) go on a movie-long crusade to stop Sullivan from succeeding, and I must have missed some intricate piece of plotting that explained why.
Sullivan goes to church to pray for God to save him from his problems, and then Walter crashes through some stained glass and into the church (because, haha, he’s big and he breaks things!), and their destiny is set.
Sullivan, Walter, and Mary go on a road trip to New Orleans for the big fight; they will split the prize money to pay Sullivan’s debt and save the orphanage. Their plan is to build his reputation and their bank account with smaller fights along the way. The first couple of fights are very weird themed matches – he fights at a Hassidic Jewish fight club and then works for a child promoter (Bobb’e J. Thompson, a rare bright spot in the film) staging fights for money in his dad’s back yard. This was kooky, creative, and different and could have been a good structure for the film – a tour of various over-the-top themed fights, a satire of the wrestling/MMA community.
Instead, we get Earl and Redrum hassling Sullivan and his dad over the money, Mary trying to prove to Sullivan that she’s not a "church lady" by tearing her clothes off to mud wrestle in her underwear, Walter opining to Mary that he wants to be a hero.
What we also expect but don’t get is a fish-out-of-water story. Walter has, for some reason, never been outside the orphanage, so he ought to be learning about the world as he goes. We get some vague characterization – he’s gentle and cries easily – but we don’t see him learning to function in society. It’s hard to understand the point of this character – in some scenes, he’s portrayed as socially stunted, in some as emotionally/developmentally stunted, in most, just as a soft-spoken nice guy.
The movie grinds away at the road trip story for over an hour. The orphanage bus flies off the road and into a cornfield and blows up, and the characters run screaming and flailing like cartoons. We’re treated to a scene of Walter getting stuck in a bus bathroom pooping, causing an evacuation of the bus due to the fumes, and having to be pulled from the bathroom by a chain of seven firemen. Haha, screaming! Haha, pooping! Haha, he’s big! None of this is witty, clever, or interesting.
At last, we get to New Orleans for the fighter tournament. Walter and Redrum musical-montage their way through their opponents to the main event. Earl has now kidnapped Henry (Walter’s BFF from the beginning of the film) to try and coerce Walter into taking a dive. The nuns have followed the missing boy down to New Orleans and fan out to search for him as the fight rages on.
Walter wins, of course. The nuns catch the bad guys, of course. Sullivan and Mary kiss, of course. In the closing scene, Walter is moving into his first apartment, and he adopts Henry so they can go together – ending the whole thing an a sappy, sentimental note.
If this film wanted to be a heart-warming underdog story, then it needed to abandon the poop gags, develop Walter as a believable character, and turn up the emotion significantly. If it wanted to be a wicked comedy, it should have used the gross-out stuff much more creatively, to push the boundaries and make some kind of point about the characters/human nature. If it wanted to be a surreal, silly ride, it should have dropped the dramatic angle and developed an entire world where a man can live 35 years in a single building without it being tragic.
Instead, I was constantly having to react differently to the film from scene to scene. Sister Francesca is a no-nonsense nun trying to help kids? Okay. No, wait, now she’s pooping (seriously) because, haha, nuns making poop sounds! No, wait, now she’s got a taser hidden in her cane which is – what? Hilarious? Awesome? I have no idea what they were trying to do with this character, and Malick simply chews the scenery.
Farina is easily the best actor of the bunch, slumming here for some reason. At one point, Redrum asks him for the next step in their plan, and he says, "I have absolutely no idea. I’m just making this crap up as I go." I had to wonder if it was an ad-lib commentary on the movie as a whole.
It’s hard to say if Wight is any good because his character is so strangely written. He does his "Big Show cry face" a couple times, pushes his chin forward into an underbite when smiling, rages at the bad guys and hugs the good guys. A lot of the jokes consist entirely of pointing out that he’s big. I wouldn’t mind watching him in something well-written; he can deliver a line naturally. It’s just that none of the lines here are any good.
I don’t know who this film is for. If you like long, gross, sentimental, wacky underdog fighting road trip romance films, I guess this is for you. I just feel like a knucklehead for sitting through the whole thing.