2006’s would-be sleeper hit Foot Fist Way was the sleepily received low-budget independent film that tore our nation apart, pitting brother against brother, waiter against maitre’ d and Phipps against Oswalt. In the great, bloody battle over whether the film was an overlooked masterpiece or a nasty, unfunny exercise in shrill misanthropy I came down firmly in the middle. There was a lot I liked about the movie but there was also a fair amount about it I found borderline repellent.
I was nevertheless convinced that Foot Fist Way announced the presence of a formidable new voice in comedy: Danny R. McBride, who you might remember from his work with David Gordon Green or his many appearances in weirdo Japanese porn that makes people puke. Sorry bout that. I now realize that I have a problem with gratuitous, unnecessary hyperlinking but after I finish this post I am going to seek help for my hyperlinking addiction.
What impressed me most about McBride in Foot Fist Way was its complete lack of sentimentality. Where most comedians and comic actors beg for the audience’s sympathy and love, McBride seems eminently comfortable inhabiting characters with seemingly no redeeming facets whatsoever. McBride’s deluded Tae Kwan Do instructor wasn’t a diamond in the rough who just needed a little love and direction. He was mildly psychotic; Foot Fist Way originally ended with him murdering his cheating floozy of a wife without suffering much remorse.
I wasn’t crazy about Foot Fist Way but I thought it radiated potential. I couldn’t wait to see what McBride and collaborators Jody Hill and Ben Best would come up with next, especially with the high-powered likes of Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Judd Apatow in their corner.
So it pleases me greatly to announce that McBride’s new HBO comedy Eastbound & Down realizes Foot Fist Way’s abundant potential. Along with The Wrestler, Big Fan and Foot Fist Way, the show seems to signal a glorious renaissance in the kind of gritty, profane, realistic seventies-style sports movies we paid homage to in an Inventory not too long ago.
Eastbound & Down casts McBride as a belligerent John Rocker-style pitcher who conquered baseball with his rocket arm and fetching mullet, then flamboyantly destroyed his career with steroids, drugs, scandals, racism, homophobia and a genius for alienating everyone around him. As McBride memorably announces in a voiceover at the beginning of the pilot, at the height of his fame, “Everyone wanted a piece of my shit”.
But McBride’s glory days ended prematurely. Kicked out of the majors yet cursed with a Hall Of Fame ego and a bloated sense of self-worth, McBride is reduced to living with his brother (Me And You And Everyone We Know’s John Hawkes), a sister-in-law (Jennifer Irwin) he cruelly but not inaccurately calls a “Church bitch” with “dead eyes” and his brother’s three children and working as a substitute elementary gym school teacher.
McBride sees his stint babysitting grade-schoolers as a pit stop on his way back to the majors but it’s clear to everyone else, audience included, that his damnable new surroundings are his home for the indefinite future. Though the world looks at McBride and sees only a fuck-up who’s squandered opportunities most people would kill for, McBride still sees himself as an icon, a champion and a fucking rock star. He can’t understand why his sister-in-law, for example, doesn’t just look the other way when he orders a hooker over the phone who doesn’t mind servicing him while he wears a Scream mask.
As in Foot Fist Way, McBride is such a ferocious, singular comic force that the supporting cast can’t help but look a little wan and forgettable by comparison, like the geeky, smoothie-chugging principal (Andrew Daly) who can’t help but idolize McBride even as his newest teacher loudly trumpets his desire to win back Daly’s fiancé, (Katy Mixon), a buxom fellow teacher he bedded during his pre-fuck-up days.
As the worst possible role model to his students, McBride wears a look of perpetual irritation and barely suppressed hostility. Yet he’s strangely likable in spite of himself, with his raging if wholly unearned self-confidence and proletarian swagger.
The teleplay, co-written by McBride, Hill and Best, is a veritable symphony of profanity: it’s as if the writers were being paid per curse word. That much of this profanity occurs within earshot of impressionable young people is a neat bonus (oh won’t someone think of the children!). Director Hill gives the film a funky, druggy cinematic sensibility highlighted by some enormously effective montage sequences set to sleazy Southern-rock and filled with jump cuts and slow motion.
If McBride is for the most part an unrepentant bastard he’s also disarmingly vulnerable. He’s prone to weeping openly when nobody’s looking. In my favorite scene in a pilot filled with quotable lines and memorable vignettes, McBride can’t stop shouting angrily at Hawkes and Irwin even while apologizing to them for his abhorrent behavior; even at his most apologetic and remorseful he’s still a dick. I don’t know how long the show will be able to sustain its nasty vitality but it’s certainly an encouraging sign that Green will be directing multiple episodes and that the show’s initial order is for a mere six episodes. I don’t know bout y’all but I’m hooked.
—One niggling concern; where in the hell did McBride get the Bachelor’s Degree that would allow him to substitute-teach? He doesn’t seem like the collegiate type, especially since he was apparently pitching in the pros at 19
—Blink-and-you-miss-it cameo: Craig Robinson as an opposing hitter
—Apparently Ferrell (who Executive-Produced along with McKay) will cameo in an upcoming episode
—According to the IMDB, Hill has written and directed a Seth Rogen vehicle about an eccentric mall cop. I just can’t see a premise like that doing anything at the box-office.
—To accompany the wall-to-wall profanity the show also features a healthy sprinkling of drug abusage and nudity. Ah, the joys of pay-cable!