In Get Hard, Will Ferrell plays James, a wealthy and successful stockbroker who lives in a mansion that everyone reading this could fit comfortably into, has a superficially smoking hot fiancee (Alison Brie) and enjoys perks like jamming with John Mayer at his engagement party. But when he’s convicted on fake embezzlement charges and sentenced to 10 years hard time in San Quentin, the soft-as-Charmin James panics and turns to Darnell (Kevin Hart), owner of the luxury car wash where he gets his ride cleaned, to prepare him for the big house. James assumes, by virtue of the fact that Darnell is black, sometimes wears a hoodie, and statistically has a 33 percent chance of doing jail time himself, has already been inside and can toughen him up.
The joke, of course, is that Darnell is a decent, honest, and crime-free family man who’s trying to save up enough money to move his wife and daughter to a better school district. The closest experience he has with prison is taking second-hand notes from his gangbanger cousin Russell (T.I.). But Darnell is willing to take James’ money and go along with the charade, launching a jail-readiness program that includes mock prison yard confrontations, sending James to pick fights with people in the park, and being pushed around in his own house by his housekeeping staff, who are enlisted to play guards and relish the game a little too much for comfort.
There’s an intermittently funny and smart movie here – I surprised myself by laughing quite a lot, even if these bromance comedies don’t usually land with me – that occasionally peeks out of the lazier, more conventionally tasteless comedy that surrounds it. Screenwriter-turned-director Etan Cohen (who co-wrote Tropic Thunder and has built this film around a story by Ferrell and Adam McKay) seems to think he’s making a subversive satire about the attitudes of the rich toward minorities, working people, and, well, just about everyone else. But the sharper bits that do emerge are often overshadowed by Cohen taking the easy way out with cheap and potentially offensive gags.
Cohen just doesn’t have the chops to navigate the high-wire he’s walking on, which is why the movie has become easy prey for our current, all-consuming culture of outrage. The movie has been attacked as being racist and homophobic; the first is baseless but the second is more problematic. It’s James, not the movie, that has a narrow view of the African-American experience, and that’s more a result of his own sheltered existence than any innate meanness. Anyone accusing this film of racism is failing to differentiate between the movie itself and the fact that we are seeing the story largely through James’ eyes – and I shudder to think what would happen if characters like this could not exist to be skewered the way James is.
Cohen does not quite rise above the accusation of homophobia, although I believe that is more a result of the script’s laziness than, again, any baked-in animosity toward gay people. Darnell decides that he can’t make James tough enough to survive in prison, so he instead determines that he has to learn how to become someone’s “bitch,” which could involve anal rape and forced oral sex. That involves taking James to a West Hollywood brunch spot/gay pick-up joint and persuading James to go down on a guy in bathroom stall. James is horrified, of course, and the scene in the stall (with Matt Walsh as James’ catch) is shot for maximum discomfort.
Here’s the problem: no one — gay or straight, in prison, or at home — wants to be forced into doing anything they don’t want to, but the scene fails to differentiate between those simple fears and a queasier homosexual panic. It doesn’t help that Walsh’s stall-lurker is a stereotype, as is the man who sits down with a waiting Darnell outside and tries to pick him up: he’s the predatory, promiscuous gay man that shameless hatemongers like Mike Huckabee always claim are coming for your children.
Yes, Darnell and the guy eventually become friends, but the character never gets the chance to rise above that initial impression. A more skilllful director could have handled this entire sequence with a bit more finesse, but Cohen’s clumsiness makes it vulnerable – and not unjustifiably so – to the charges that have been leveled against it.
It’s those things that leave a bad taste in one’s mouth (so to speak) and prevent Get Hard from being the wicked satire that it wants to be, along with the other “aw, fuck it” machinations of the plot itself. Ferrell and Hart have an effortless chemistry together that helps get some of the funnier bits across, but their characters are self-contradictory at every turn. Ferrell’s James is positioned as a master moneymaker – he makes $28 million in one day for his boss and future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) as the film opens – but he turns instantly stupid the minute his conviction comes down and wastes more time with Darnell’s “training” that trying to prove his own innocence. I know that this kind of clueless, successful-in-spite-of-himself schlub is Ferrell’s stock in trade, but it feels more contrived than usual here.
Same with Hart, whose Darnell also veers way out of orbit when the script calls for it but otherwise never coheres as a fully formed character. Is he just desperate or truly cynical? The movie never really answers that question. But one still can’t help but laugh when he relates his own prison experience to James and we realize he’s simply reciting the plot of a classic movie about life in South Central (James is oblivious, naturally).
Hart’s natural timing is also put to excellent use when he plays three different characters, giving James a hard time in the mock prison yard scene I mentioned earlier. The rest of the cast have little to do, with Nelson lumbering through the nonsensical subplot about who really framed James, and Brie getting shortchanged as a scheming, grasping sexpot.
As I said earlier, Get Hard made me laugh quite a few times, a not inconsiderable accomplishment in an era when major studio comedies seem more insipid and artless than ever. Ferrell and Hart make a good team, but as the movie starts to limp toward the finish line you find yourself wishing that the script and direction didn’t let them down so much along the way or take the easy lowest-common-denominator way out. Still, it may be too harsh to suggest that Etan Cohen spend some time in director jail before making another movie – because, in the end, Get Hard is less a major felony and more a minor offense.
Get Hard is out in theaters Friday (March 27).