When do wry race jokes stumble over the line and devolve into straight-up racism? People like Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor and Louis C.K. have proven that color barriers can indeed be funny, but only because those barriers beg to be broken down. Etan Cohen, director and co-writer on Get Hard, can’t even plant a single respectable bênção on racism’s ugly face, but give the guy credit for trying. It takes chutzpah to tackle the subject for mainstream audiences today, particularly on the entertainment stage and perhaps especially through the lens of a studio comedy. What he lacks in insight he almost makes up for in moxy (and an endless supply of dick jokes).
Almost. Get Hard is no Blazing Saddles, and it’s no 48 Hrs. either, though Cohen tries his damnedest to riff on Eddie Murphy’s iconic confrontation with a gang of angry rednecks. Maybe the issue is that Kevin Hart is no Eddie Murphy, though people like Murphy are one of a kind, so that comparison is intrinsically unfair. Hart, however, is one of a kind himself, an aggressively self-deprecating presence who always feels like the most down to earth person in nearly every movie he lends his talents to. The ultimate dilemma is that Get Hard is fine for what it is, but the “what” happens to be pathetically undercooked and totally oblivious to its own failings in sensitivity. You get what you pay for, though frankly you could do worse as far as Kevin Hart films go in 2015.
Hart represents one of the movie’s two saving graces. The other, maybe unsurprisingly, is Will Ferrell. Get Hard winds up leaps and bounds ahead of the execrable The Wedding Ringer thanks to its leads; Ferrell is a better co-pilot to Hart than Josh Gad, and Cohen’s material is stronger—or at least it’s more serviceable, stuff that only comes to life thanks to its principals. If there’s a lesson learned in all this, it’s that Ferrell and Hart ought to make more movies together.
Anyone who’s caught the ads for the film knows the story. James King (Ferrell) is a generic big shot financier type who gets caught in a tax evasion scheme and is unceremoniously tossed behind bars for ten years. Darnell Lewis (Hart) is the hard-working manager of his own car washing business, where James is a regular. Darnell has troubles, too—mostly he wants to move his family out of his rough neighborhood so his daughter can attend a safer school, but he’s $30,000 short on a down payment. Naturally, these guys both have something the other wants: James has the money to help Darnell realize his dream, and Darnell has the ex-con experience necessary to prepare the soft, cowardly James for life on the inside. Except that he doesn’t. James just presumes he does, and Darnell’s desperation outweighs his outrage.
Buddy comedies are a dime a dozen, and on paper, Get Hard sounds like a gem. Racism isn’t a joke here, it’s the joke, with everything down to the basic conceit precisely calibrated for mocking white assumptions about minority Americans, and James makes so many assumptions that it’s easy to buy the idea that his Latino gardeners and housekeepers might join eagerly in Darnell’s humiliating enterprise. But Cohen constantly undercuts the film’s script with actual racism, whether intentional or otherwise. Darnell Lewis doesn’t have a mad dog face, and he isn’t a hardened thug, but hey, his cousin (rapper T.I.) is! Get Hard wants to dissect every stereotype possible but it’s too goddamn busy reveling in them to legitimize its better merits. This, mind you, is all piled atop a current of gay panic, horrid prison rape jokes and a cavalcade of female characters classified either as objects or harlots. Apart from Alison Brie, who gratingly plays James’s fiancée as a full volume Jewish American Princess, the only woman with any significant dialogue is Edwina Findley, who shows up occasionally as Darnell’s wife and dispenses wisdom alongside justified smackdowns.
In spite of itself, Get Hard manages to be funny enough to both recommend and to laugh at out loud without feeling public embarrassment. That’s the natural result of hiring actors like Hart and Ferrell, who vibe so well that if they never re-team in the future it’ll be a serious shame. They understand how ignorance can be lampooned, how bawdy and stupid can be hilarious and how all of these things can progressively intersect. But their efforts are expended in a movie that doesn’t care to think beyond its set-up and blithely overlooks the implications made by its plot. They “get it” where Cohen doesn’t.
Director: Etan Cohen
Writers: Etan Cohen, Jay Martel, Ian Roberts
Starring: Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Edwina Findley, T.I., Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Paul Ben Victor
Release Date: Mar. 27th, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.