Slipping a chokehold on the concept of family entertainment, “Knucklehead” is the latest from WWE Studios and part of a purported move by the company into more wholesome content — one that does not, apparently, preclude making use of its World Wrestling Entertainment stable of literally enormous acts. In this case, the wrestler-cum-thesp is the mountainous Paul “Big Show” Wight, whose inherent sweetness salvages helmer Michael W. Watkins’ laffer from being body-slammed by its own cliches and anachronisms. If WWE can exploit the family angle, the comedy could slap a half nelson on the B.O. in limited release.
Wight, who’s about 7 feet tall and weighs some 400 pounds, is the movie’s self-admitted “gentle giant” and knucklehead, Walter Krunk, who has spent the first 35 years of his life in the St. Thomas Orphanage, run by the ferocious Sister Francesca (a deliciously acidic Wendie Malick), assisted by the too-sexy-for-orphans Mary O’Connell (Melora Hardin). Through a set of circumstances that can only be miraculous, the guileless Walter has not destroyed the place during his protracted childhood, but one morning, while cooking breakfast for his favorite fellow waif, Henry (Kurt Doss), he does burn down the kitchen. Since a fiery death would be preferable to Sister Francesca’s Old Testament wrath, Walter is miserable, penitent and at a loss: The orphanage has barely escaped being shut down, but needs remodeling money ASAP.
The genre conventions keep coming: Just coincidentally, Eddie Sullivan (Mark Feuerstein), an oily, fast-talking con man and fight promoter, has incurred some Walter-sized debts with nefarious gambler Memphis Earl (Dennis Farina, doing his best Dennis Farina). There is, naturally, a big competition coming up in New Orleans, and Eddie desperately needs the prize money. He also needs someone who can get in a ring with Earl’s lethal fighter (Lester Speight), named Redrum (an homage, apparently, to Stephen King). Eddie goes into church looking for a sign from God — and Walter comes smashing through a stained-glass window. Shenanigans, as they say, ensue.
From the film’s opening moments — replete with dark-days-of-live-action-Disney music (a smart-alecky pastiche by James Alan Johnston) — everything in “Knucklehead” seems intended to evoke a bygone era of family entertainment, with the exception of the seemingly de rigueur flatulence jokes, one of which may indeed be a classic of the form: Traveling cross-country to the big tournament and picking up fights along the way, Walter finds himself in need of the bathroom on a bus, into which he cannot possible fit. The results aren’t exactly worthy of “Jackass 3D,” but they’re gross. It’s a very funny scene, but also something of a departure for a movie that otherwise seems eager not to offend.
“Knucklehead” has a professional slickness about it, flawless shooting by d.p. Kenneth Zunder, and Johnston’s perfectly cloying score. The acting leaves a bit to be desired: Malick is hilarious; Wight is endearing; Rebecca Creskoff (“Hung”), who plays Mary’s friend and fellow ex-“dancer,” is refreshingly natural. Feuerstein, on the other hand, is more convincing playing a straight weasel than a hero on the road to reform, and Hardin is twitchy, offering about six gestures for every four words of dialogue. Nobody’s unlikable, but Wight needn’t worry about having his scenes stolen out from under him. No one in the cast is that strong — or, in all likelihood, brave.