When WWE decided to get into the movie business, the idea was that their wrestlers would star in their films and that with the crossover promotion from wrestling and some buzz, they could make a little bit of money in the theaters and then profit from the video release. Their first few movies starred John Cena, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Kane. While Vince McMahon has had Hollywood dollar signs dancing in his eyes ever since he put Hulk Hogan on the big screen in No Holds Barred, I think their recent foray into the movie business was a reactive move based on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leaving WWE for Hollywood.
Their strategy hasn’t necessarily worked quite yet. The film branch of their business is continually one of the only money losers, yet they don’t seem to be quitting. Very recently, WWE’s strategy has been to do a limited edition theater release and then go straight to DVD. I don’t really know why they bother with the theatrical release, other than to simply say that they did it.
What separates That’s What I Am from their other movies is that it’s the first movie they’ve done where their star wrestler, in this case Randy Orton, only had a bit part, and real actors carried the movie. Ed Harris is the only adult actor on the poster and Orton’s in the movie for maybe five minutes. I think their goal here was to get publicity on the quality of the film rather than on their big bumbling wrestler who was in it.
That’s What I Am has heart and the idea is a fine one. But it’s message is very heavy-handed and has an after school special feel to it at times. The movie preaches tolerance and anti-bullying, which is kind of funny coming from a company that endorses huge wrestlers who bully each other.
It’s set in the mid-60s at a junior high school in California. The main character is Andy Nichol, who from time to time also narrates the film, in his now adult voice. He’s faced with all the oddities involved with junior high school like girls, bullying, and the pressure to fit in. It’s a strong setting because I think if you poll most adults, they’d probably say junior high school was the most confusing time of their youth.
There is a two-way message here and the movie would’ve been better with just only one. The idea is that kids bully because they don’t know any better and they’re simply trying to fit in, mimicking what they see at home. But also, there’s a secondary message about how people related to the thought of someone perceived as a homosexual teaching their children. The bullying part of the movie is done well. It all makes sense and even in the cases of those bullying, you can understand why they feel the need to do it, and yes, they eventually get their comeuppance.
But when the movie tries to deal with the idea of prejudice against homosexuals, it stumbles, falls, and doesn’t really get back up. Ed Harris’s Mr. Simon is known as everyone’s favorite teacher and yet, the thought of him being homosexual is used as a scare tactic to rally the parents against the school. And all of this happens because of Randy Orton. Randy Orton plays the parent of a one of the bullying children, but this child is worse than most because he bullies a girl simply because she’s ugly. Her savoir is a social outcast himself nicknamed Big G, as in Big Ginger, because is a foot taller than everyone else and has fire engine red hair. Big G scares the bully away right in front of Andy and Andy sees that Big G is really just someone who stands up for the good, and it’s not his fault that he looks different than others.
But because Orton’s kid was nearly kicked out of school for his offense and muttered that his teacher could be gay, he goes to the principal, played by Amy Madigan, and threatens to go to the papers unless it’s proven that Mr. Simon is not gay. And here’s the moral conundrum for Madigan’s character. Who really cares if he’s gay? He’s a fantastic teacher. But if lies are spread that they are employing a gay teacher (and it’s implied that gay teachers were characterized as perverts), the school might not be able to recover from the press. This part of the movie seemed to be a huge focal point, but it’s not really brought up again until the end. I have a feeling that writer and director Michael Pavone simply couldn’t figure out how to tie this together with the rest of the theme.
Most of the movie is about the kids. It’s about how they relate to each other. Mr. Simon puts the narrator and Big G together to work on a project. Andy is able to learn about Big G and finds out that underneath the rough exterior is a great person. It’s a good theme. It’s one that you want your kids to learn. But there’s just a bit of awkwardness when it comes to putting it all together.
I commend the WWE for wanting to make good themed movies rather than just the action packed shoot ’em up type film, especially after Sylvester Stallone showed that you can still make money with that kind of mindless film if you put the right people in it. But until they hit the lottery with something that really touches the masses, I think they’re going to continue struggling. This is one of their better films, but that’s not saying much.