The distasteful, often flat “Get Hard” succeeds only as a testament to the resilience of talent.
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart remain just as appealing at film’s end as they were before it started. But it’s touch and go for two-thirds of “Get Hard,” in which Hart’s blue-collar character, Darnell, teaches Ferrell’s accused white-collar criminal, James, how to survive James’ upcoming prison stint.
Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Men in Black 3”) makes his feature directing debut with “Get Hard” and also co-wrote the script. So we’ll assume he’s the one obsessed with prison rape.
If there are overriding themes to “Get Hard,” they are that incarceration equals rape, and that the chief goal in prison preparation is to discover how to avoid becoming a a fellow prisoner’s, um, special companion. “Get Hard” offers many variations on this joke, sometimes with graphic visual aids, sometimes moving from prison-centric “humor” into generalized homophobia.
I’ve seen “Oz.” Fears of assault in prison are valid. But building a film around them does a disservice to real-life victims. There’s also, comedy-wise, the matter of a joke never growing funnier through repetition.
No one goes into a raunchy comedy such as this expecting it to be politically correct. But with good raunchy comedies, funny can outweigh potential offensiveness. For most of its length, “Get Hard” does not reach a level of humor strong enough to obscure its dicier material.
The unseemly humor undercuts otherwise showcase moments. Like one in which Hart, who is lit from within and the most exciting comic actor working today, assumes three inmate personas – two of whom are engaged in an argument – to demonstrate to James the nature of prison interactions.
Ferrell stands there like a post as Hart moves around him, with Darnell embodying a black inmate and a Latino inmate before mincing into the persona of a gay inmate who is coming on to James. This scene’s inherent bigotry negates Hart’s brilliance within it.
The stereotypes only start there. This week is likely to end with Starbucks having done more for race relations than “Get Hard.”
The film’s opening minutes strongly, and misleadingly, suggest the movie will explore satirically the haves/have-nots dichotomy of Los Angeles.
When James, a financial-industry whiz who lives in Bel Air, grosses out his Latino gardener by cavorting, nude, in front of a curtainless window, “Get Hard” is offering commentary on 1-percenters’ obliviousness to the 99 percent.
The film soon abandons this comparatively subtle approach for cheap humor.
James is arrested on fraud charges, and convicted, though he maintains he is innocent. The judge, tired of sending white-collar criminals to country club prisons, sentences him to 10 years in San Quentin.
White and privileged, James is, according to this movie’s logic, also casually racist. He assumes Darnell, owner of the company that details James’ car, has been to prison, because Darnell is black. He wants Darnell to teach him how to handle life on the inside.
Darnell finds James’ assumption racist, but agrees to help, for $30,000. Even though he never has been to prison or been in any trouble.
Darnell lives in a small place in Crenshaw, where his daughter (Ariana Neal) attends a crumbling school with metal detectors at the entrance. Darnell and his nurse wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson) need the $30,000 to buy a place outside the neighborhood.
Broad comedies like big contrasts, so it’s not alarming to see one character live in a palace and another in a dump. But then “Get Hard” makes Darnell’s family hold the line as, seemingly, Crenshaw’s only non-criminals. Everyone else belongs to a gang led by Darnell’s cousin (Tip “T.I.” Harris).
Harris is magnetic, stealing every scene he is in. But why does he need to play a drug dealer surrounded by other African Americans who talk about murdering people?
“Get Hard” tries to balance things out, on the race front, by showing white-supremacist criminals, and on the LGBT front by including a likable gay character (T.J. Jagodowski). But the damage is done.
There is no damage to Ferrell or Hart, however.
The script initially works against their best traits by having Ferrell play James as entitled and Hart play Darnell as mercenary, helping James only for the money. Darnell sends James out to fight random guys at the park without much care for James’ welfare.
Callousness suits neither Ferrell nor Hart. We like Ferrell and Hart because we think they are nice guys. This is not true with every on-screen persona – Jonah Hill and Charlize Theron, for example, never seem all that nice – but it is with Ferrell and Hart.
Fortunately, “Get Hard” becomes a better film – and plays to Hart’s and Ferrell’s strengths – in its final act, when James reveals himself to be a clueless doofus, and Darnell becomes genuinely protective of James.
Once “Get Hard” becomes a true buddy comedy, it exonerates Hart and Ferrell of responsibility for having starred in it.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Tip “T.I.” Harris
Director: Etan Cohen
Rated R (pervasive crude and sexual content and language, some graphic nudity, and drug material)