In the mid-twentieth century, Gloria Swanson, an aging out-of-the-limelight former silent film star, played the part of Norma Desmond, a character who might be described as an aging out-of-the limelight former silent film star. This performance, in the film Sunset Blvd. (1950), demonstrated that the legendary Swanson, unlike Desmond, possessed self-awareness and an ability to poke fun at herself. She was portraying an unflattering version of her real life self, and by doing so, she showed that she was keeping up with how the film industry had changed, and that, in her own way, she was gracefully modernizing as well. Swanson found her own place in a world of talkies, even if that place was to meta-narratively show how the silent-film era was over. In the film, we also meet her butler, Max von Mayerling, who is a washed-up former German film director. Max was played by Erich von Stroheim, a washed-up former German film director. A number of people play themselves in this film as well, such as Cecille B. Demille and Buster Keaton.
There’s no shortage of films where actors play themselves, including the 1980 comedy, Airplane, where Kareem Abdul Jabaar plays a version of himself where he’s pretending not to be himself. (What would that be called? Building the fourth wall?) There’s also Zombieland (2009), where Bill Murray plays a version of himself–a living-dead legend. When someone plays a version of themselves–or their actual selves, on screen, it’s often funny, even if accidentally so. These self-portrayals can also reveal vulnerability in characters, in actors, in the purposes of films, and in moments on Hollywood transition.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s portrayal of himself in the 2019 film, Fighting with My Family (2019), feels a little different from these other self-representations. Although, it’s difficult to pin down precisely how it’s different. How one views his self-portrayal depends on how cynical one is–or chooses to be. The Rock’s performance can be seen as a heart-warming endorsement of the bonds that tie people, family, and friends together, but his almost Mr. Rogers-esque persona in the film strikes me as a bit incredulous.
In the film, The Rock is unfailingly polite, a dispenser of wisdom, both professional and personal, and deferential to the authority of others, even when he doesn’t need to be. He doesn’t take credit for helping the protagonist, Saraya Knight (played by Tori Ellen Ross and Florence Pugh), and he comes off as Mr. Belding-nice combined with Yoda-wise. I mean, maybe, the Rock is like that? We all know people like that, but they’re rare, and it’s a curiously positive portrayal of Mr. Johnson.
But then upon second thought, the Rock’s portrayal in this film simply echoes the tone of the entire film. Fighting with My Family is more about family than it is about fighting, either inside the ring or outside of it. It’s about a family that supports each other, and basically every character in this film is portrayed positively. That’s both the strength and the weakness of the film. The plot is based on a true story about a young female wrestler who fought her way up from obscurity to stardom, who moved from the U.K. to across the pond in America to achieve her dreams. This girl’s name is Saraya “Paige” Knight, and the movie represents her working class roots and struggle for success as a type of rags-to-riches story.
We meet Paige when she’s a kid fighting with her brother (Zak Knight played by Thomas Willey and Jack Lowden) in a literal mom and pop operation. The family runs a wrestling entertainment business out of what’s basically a gym. They perform for crowds, and fill in their off hours (and maybe their pay?) by training the local kids in the art of wrestling and showmanship. Paige’s father is Ricky Knight (Nick Frost), a reformed criminal with a humorous but heartwarming tale of redemption, and her mom, Julia Knight (Lena Heady), is the salty but caring matriarch of the family. Everything is normal–comparatively speaking–until Paige and Zak get an opportunity to make it big, with the WWE. A WWE recruiter–and former washed-up wrestler, Hutch (Vince Vaughn)–sees potential in Paige, but not so much in Zak.
Herein lies the first bit of tension; Zak must accept that his wrestling career has stalled, and Paige must reckon with the survivor’s guilt she feels for progressing past her brother. She must also face her own culture clashes, as she discovers that the WWE has a different set mores and folkways than her family’s small operation back in England. Case in point: when her brother or someone else would mess up, perhaps by being a bit too rough, the admonishment was a physical strike. You learned to be a good wrestler, and if you didn’t, then you’d learn to watch out for retribution. When Paige tries that in Florida, Hutch makes it clear that that’s not the way they do business in the major leagues.
In addition to her guilt and culture shock, Paige undergoes growing self-doubt about who she is, what she wants, and what she’s capable of. Is she good enough? Is she tough enough? Is she pretty enough? Along these two lines, I was reminded of two other films as I watched this one. First, there’s the inspirational football film, Rudy (1993), wherein the main character, Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin), is the scruffy runt who doesn’t belong with the gladiators of Notre Dame, but he perseveres and proves something to himself, his athletic team, and his family. Rudy’s story shares thematic and narrative similarities to Paige’s. The other film would be Cinderella (1950), in the sense that Paige feels like the ugly step-sister competing with all the other female wrestlers, who she thinks are prettier and more likely to be chosen by Hutch and WWE.
If Rudy and Cinderella suggest a type of fairy tale optimism and life-affirming narrative, then you’re on the right track about understanding the mood of Fighting with My Family. This film, however, differs from those two stories in a few ways. First, the evil step sisters (Paige’s competitors) aren’t evil at all. They aren’t even frenemies. In fact, they are the most supportive people you could imagine. They listen to Paige, want to be her friend, and are mutually supportive of her. Hutch starts out as her recruiter, turns into her coach and by the end, he’s basically an unofficial big brother. Literally, no one in this film–at least any of the significant or even mid-tier characters–is malicious or malevolent in any significant way. Everyone is supportive. There are, for sure, dark turns in the plot, twists in the story, but even these tense moments last only so long as to tease the audience with the possibility that something much more dramatic might emerge. Order is quickly restored, and characters progress with their edification.
In that way, this film is slightly too wholesome for an episode of Saved By the Bell–there were, on occasion, even villains on that kid’s show. And this is where the film’s portrayal of “The Rock” collides with its insistent optimism. Fighting with My Family‘s aggressive wholesomeness can be interpreted as a vehicle of image support for the WWE and for the lucrative public persona of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film, which paints both the man and organization in such a positive light, is produced in part by WWE Studios and by “The Rock’s” own production company, Seven Buck Productions.
But it isn’t just who produced it, it’s when and within what rhetorical context. Fighting with My Family hit the public amidst growing controversies about the business practices of the WWE, both in this country and others. John Oliver, for instance, has had at least two critical features about the WWE on his show, Last Week Tonight. So this film can be interpreted as a form of responsive in-house press meant to bolster the image of The Rock at the height of his career and the WWE during a storm of intense criticism.
Now to be clear, the film can also be enjoyed, analyzed, and interpreted without this layer of circumstances, but for me, the added layer reveals more about the possible purpose of the film’s positive portrayals. Overall, Fighting with My Family is an enjoyable film, and as I mentioned before, it’s closest cousin is possibly Rudy. It’s a life-affirming film, and it’s edifying and inspirational, even for the cynically inclined. But it’s also a bit of a hustle–or, at least it feels that way. It veers off into product placement territory with its unrealistic representations of, well, everything.
A couple other notes. First, even though it’s mostly family friendly, there is language and content that is more adult oriented. Second, Vince Vaughn has a surprisingly good, semi-dramatic performance in this film that suggests he has better range than people realize. So if you’re in the mood for wrestling and dreaming, you might try out Fighting with My Family.