The cinematic qualities of Fighting With My Family, a biopic about WWE Diva Paige's rise to the top of the professional wrestling world, aren't really what interests me about the picture: It's funny and sweet and pretty basic, a standard underdog-triumphs-in-sports (entertainment) story along the lines of Rudy. Director Stephen Merchant, perhaps best known as Ricky Gervais's better half in the creation of Extras, The Office, and Life's Too Short, is a capable director of comedy, understanding comic beats and comic timing about as well as any director from recent years that I can recall. If you doubt this, I strongly recommend you watch Extras, Merchant and Gervais's biting satire of showbiz that stands out as one of the funniest (and most under-appreciated) sitcoms of the last 20 years.
So, yeah: Fighting With My Family is perfectly acceptable entertainment. What's more interesting, at least to me, is the fact that it's a movie from WWE Studios about the WWE itself that aims to reshape the way people think about the art of wrestling and the business of wrestling. Its producer and topline star is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the hardest working man in showbiz who also happens to have, on some level, hopes of running for office one day. Fighting With My Family is, essentially, an $11 million infomercial about the beneficial qualities professional wrestling can offer society.
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It is the purest form of filmmaking as myth making.
You think professional wrestling is about steroids and early deaths and scantily clad men and women prancing around the ring? Perish the thought! In fact, wrestling is a way to get wayward youths off the street, a way to bring shockingly diverse groups of Britons—a South Asian lad; a blind boy; teens of all body shapes and sizes—together in joyous harmony. It's a way for single mothers to provide for their families, a way for alcoholic ex-cons to pull their lives together and put food on the table.
Intriguingly absent from the entire film is WWE mastermind Vince McMahon, a legitimate visionary who turned professional wrestling from a regional pseudo-sport in America's backwaters into a worldwide phenomenon with revenues peaking at $800 million in 2017. There's a moment in the film where I thought, for sure, he was going to appear: Paige (Florence Pugh), who has been competing in a sort of minor-league WWE competition called "NXT," is called into a skybox suite during WrestleMania. The room is dark and mysterious; a beefy guard holds the key outside, keeping ne'er-do-wells at bay.
This seemed like the prime moment for Vince to make his appearance: the shadowy puppet master pulling the strings, ready to hand Paige her shot at the Diva's belt. Instead, the room is occupied by … The Rock. Turns out he's the one running the show, he's the man behind the curtain. Like Paige, he comes from a family of wrestlers. That's why he wants her to succeed: because wrestling is for families.
Once again, I have to stress: Fighting With My Family is a totally fine movie. It's just far more interesting when thought of as a piece of corporate reinvention and as an effort to fully reformulate the origin story of Dwayne Johnson, one of the WWE's now-maligned Attitude Era's biggest stars, as a father figure for a nation looking for one decent man to lead them.