I wanted to like this more than I actually did, appreciating that’s the kind of opening sentence that pretty much gives away where the review is going to go. And it’s true: I think Night School has a collection of problems, but I do want to start with something of a defence for it.
Hollywood is not shy of comedies, written primarily around one or two stars, where supporting characters are one dimensional at best, where cheap jokes are made, and where there’s little point to the film in question outside of purely being a commercial enterprise. All well and good if the film works as a piece of entertainment. I think I can safely say we’ve all sat through an abundance of such comedies that don’t.
Night School, just past the half-way point as best as I could measure it, bothers. It bothers to try and do something interesting with its characters, to give them a bit more resonance, to do something more with the idea of chucking a load of adults together in a night class and go ha-ha-ha isn’t that funny. I really appreciated it doing it, too. Somewhere, someone’s tried to lift this above the usual mire of the throwaway Hollywood yak-fest, with unexpected angles to the characters. I’ll not spoil it, but it certainly made me to sit up.
Here’s the killer. It’s a crushing pity that the film around those ambitions is so weak, though. I’m a paid-up fan of Kevin Hart on the big screen, a man whose sheer energy and talent can lift the most tired of vehicles into something entertaining. Few liked the rom-com The Wedding Ringer from what I could make it, but I really did. For all its many flaws, I just found it funny, as if Hart grabbed the film by its collar and dragged it into some form of shape (appreciating that sells short others who did fine work on the movie).
The comedy in Night School, though, is surprisingly flat. The movie is centred on Hart’s character, a successful barbecue salesman when we meet him, living a long way beyond his means. He wants to impress the love of his life, wants to pay for everything, but life soon takes the kind of contrived turns you only find in Hollywood comedies, and he finds himself back to square one. No money, no car, and a need for a qualification to get some job or other in a magical world where everyone gets a job as soon as they’ve earned one specific qualification. I’ll give it this: I like the sound of that world.
Thus, he finds himself in a night class of misfits, overseen by Tiffany Haddish’s Carrie. We don’t get an awful lot of Haddish in the movie, but she’s a brilliant crackle of energy when she does get solid screen time. Her scenes with Hart are what presumably helped get the movie greenlit in the first place, and rightly so. The two of them are both capable of powering and headlining a big comedy, and they’re the core highlights of the cast. Oh, and Mary Lynn Rajskub, of course. Best known to date for playing Chloe in 24, she’s terrific value in one of the film’s supporting roles.
Yet there’s no disguising the problems. Appreciating that comedy is subjective, the laugh count feels woefully low here. It’s a couple of polite chuckles movie, rather than an oh-my-god-I’m-struggling-to-breathe gas fest. It’s also way too long, and that’s with a 111 minute running time. There’s a subplot involving Taran Killam’s headteacher, who just happened to have been in the same class as Hart’s Teddy Walker back when they were originally at high school. It never fizzes, though. It’s just more pretty obvious story that the film has to churn through. It adds to the running time, but not really to the film. I did, though, like the moments with a religious take on KFC, worth it for the background gag of what all the drinks are called.
But it still falls flat. It’s a pity, as Night School clearly has a bit more ambition than the average Hollywood comedy, and both Hart and Haddish are good value. All these ingredients, though, have found themselves in the midst of a rather stale cake, and from the best of intentions comes a film that just exists to fill a screen in a multiplex. It does that, but not a lot else.