WWE Studios has been producing a steady stream of big, dumb action schlock since ’02, their only real winner being Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s starring vehicle, The Rundown. To be fair, they co-produced to Universal’s Strike Entertainment; I imagine someone had the good sense to lock Vince McMahon in a closet during the lion’s share of that film.
The wrestling organization’s studio wing has in recent years been playing it up to the PG-13 crowd to cast a wider demographic net, and thus their film library has seen some variation from wooden wrestlers blowing shit up and punching faces. Basically, WWE Studios wants you to know they have a heart– and so we get That’s What I Am, television writer/director Michael Pavone’s big screen feature debut.
That’s What I Am is the story of Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison), a middle of the road student in his last year of junior high in the late sixties, and the interactions he has with his peer group. When Andy is assigned an end-of-term writing project by his English teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), he’s partnered with the school whipping boy, Stanley “Big G” Miner (Alexander Walters). Big G – the “G” is for ginger – is awkwardly taller than his schoolmates, big headed, big eared, and unwilling to defend himself from abuse. Andy is of course, reticent to be seen with Big G, as he does not want to upset his delicate, safe place in the school hierarchy.
That’s What I Am is a weak, intermittently awful film from a director/writer that has little business venturing outside of episodic television. I’d say it was formulaic, but that would be suggesting that Michael Pavone actually followed a functional formula for most of his movie. He seems to work double-time to take away the good feelings he manages to drag from the audience in sporadically fun scenes with the inane.
The film waves a massive, none-too-subtle tolerance flag, which is fine if the writer has the attention span to follow story threads to their logical conclusion, and the writing chops to make the dialogue engaging. For as much foundation is laid on the premise that Big G and Andy will be writing, working, and getting to know one-another in spite of their differences – they share surprisingly little screen time together. Much of the film turns into the story of their English teacher, Mr. Simon – given much more depth than is actually on the script page by Ed Harris, and accusations of his prospective homosexuality. He is of course, fantastic – because he’s Ed Harris, and fantastic is what Harris does. It’s a testament to his talent that he could take what would otherwise be cringe-worthy dialogue and at least keep me from laughing out loud when I hear it.
That said, his connection to this film mystifies me. Logically, I can only conclude that Pavone caught him doing something awful – like dosing baby food with acid or killing a hooker, and this was his only out. I refuse to believe Ed Harris signed on willingly.
Most of the teen cast appears to be graduates with honors of the Disney Channel School of Wildly Overacting (that’s totally a real thing – no need to look it up). They deliver their adult dialogue with dripping sarcasm, shrill goofiness, comically hang-dog sadness, and plenty of ham. I realize that much of what made it to print is the result of Pavone being happy with and of course directing the tone of delivery, but with very young actors like Abigail Breslin, Max Records, and Chloë Moretz in the world doing the fantastic work they’ve contributed – I don’t think it’s unfair to expect better. That said, the casting of Ellison and Walters are solid, as both are capable of carrying their load throughout the film in spite of the flimsy writing, particularly Walters.
Of course, I can’t move on without mentioning the obligatory wrestler-as-cast, Randy Orton – the parent of one of Andy’s unpleasant classmates. He’s certainly not bad as a strict, homophobic father pushing for the dismissal of Mr. Simon from teaching – just a bit unnecessarily intense. Fella opens doors, works on his car, drinks beer, and sits in a chair watching television intensely. WWE will not be catching lightning in a bottle again with one of their wrestling superstars as they did with Dwayne Johnson anytime soon, but Orton could definitely have decent screen presence in a blow ’em up if they could just pull a writer and director that didn’t seemingly suffer a head injury as a child.
The one redeeming thread the film brings to the table is the side-story of Andy’s introduction to the world of girls via Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), the school’s most desirable female. As far as writing is concerned, this is clearly Pavone’s strong suit, and I suggest he stick with it if he’s to direct his own work again. He manages to capture a lot of the sweaty nervousness of firsts – be it kisses, dating, and the awkwardness of starting puberty. Frampton is also a cut above the majority of the supporting cast, and this of course elevates the moments Andy and Mary share; they’re fun to watch.
That’s What I Am wants to be a lot of things – and thus misses the mark in just about every avenue it pursues; someone else has done it all before, and better. Almost the entire cast is a caricature of a real person, much like wrestlers – which perhaps is why WWE Studios dug it. Where The Sandlot takes most of the over-the-top silliness and makes it a figment of the wild imagination of a bunch of kids, That’s What I Am brings all of that goofiness into the real world – like an “I can get anything” type, Ellis Redding character complete with a jacket lined with Twinkies and going steady bracelets, or the resident “Cootie Expert” who calms the panicked masses when a boy touches a homely girl in the hallway. It’s too much mixed with the syrupy drama and attempt at a serious theme.
Finally – the injustice of the ending for Mr. Simon is never addressed. It’s simply there, as another thread left to float around in the wind.
My suggestion? Go watch re-runs of The Wonder Years. I’m certain you’ll find the same basic premise for this entire film spread amongst the episodes, and with much more efficient and meaningful delivery.
The Upside: The relationship woes of a teenager are pretty spot on, and reasonably fun to watch.
The Downside: Painful acting, disjointed story, and Ed Harris taking an easy paycheck? No thanks.
On The Side: If John Cena had inexplicably shown up at any random point in the film to walk away from an explosion, I would have given this a C just because.