Racism, misogyny and homophobia are never amusing, but I don’t think Get Hard would pass muster even if it didn’t indulge in the kind of clueless stereotyping that Hollywood has had to live down for generations. It seems unduly proud of its “R” rating, as if that fact in and of itself somehow makes it edgy or daring. It’s neither of those things. It’s a studio approximation of edgy and daring: throwing bare breasts and copious “fucks” as us with the desperate eagerness of a child imitating his foul-mouthed father. It lacks the courage of its convictions, and its egregious button-pushing covers up for the very timidity it hopes to banish.
Also, it’s not funny. At all.
Oh Will Ferrell scores a couple of laughs by default and Kevin Hart shows a lot of promise with his manic ball of energy routine, but the rest of Get Hard clings precariously to a high concept that would be pressed to cover a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. One can overlook a lot of flaws in a comedy if it squeezes some steady laughs out of us, but when it can’t, few film-going experiences are more depressing.
In this case, the issue circles back to the aforementioned homophobia and misogyny – please God, can we stop with the prison rape gags already? – and turns into a chicken-and-egg-style debate about where the problem starts. Is it unfunny because it indulges in lazy caricatures, or did it turn to lazy caricatures because it honestly couldn’t think of any way to be funny? It hardly matters, for the film itself runs out of gas almost before the opening credits do.
The trailer tells you everything you need to know. Ferrell plays James King, a high-riding stockbroker busted for securities fraud and sentenced to ten years of hard time. In order to avoid that horrid prison rape thing he’s heard about, he contacts Hart’s small businessman Darnell – who runs a car wash service in his building’s parking lot – and asks him for some lessons in the school of hard knocks. Hart, in need of $30,000 to buy a house far away from his family’s scary neighborhood, accepts the deal despite the fact that he himself has never been in prison.
Right away, the cracks start to show, as King’s racist assumptions and Darnell’s willingness to take advantage of them become the central purpose of the exercise. That coats the story with an unpleasant sheen that it never escapes, and while King remains the target of the joke, the whole notion takes on some very nasty overtones. Things perk up a bit as Darnell turns his client’s palatial estate into a jury-rigged prison, with the long-suffering staff gleefully serving as guards and inmates. But director Etan Cohen – who’s done much better work in other films – shies away from the comedic potential of that in favor of dumb sight gags and shots of Ferrell looking cowed.
And therein lies the film’s second major fatal flaw. Having set us up for a good bit of schadenfreude as a greedy prick finally get his, Get Hard backs off by suggesting that said greedy prick might not be so bad after all. Not only does that make his suffering more painful than humorous, it also blunts the movie’s awkward attempts at social commentary. It wants to condemn the excesses of the 1% and the plight of hard-working everymen like Darnell, but it can’t even muster a timid “hey stop that” in response. (I’m going to accept as a given the obvious irony of a giant multinational corporation like Warner Bros condemning the excesses of giant multinational corporations.) King displays the sort of greed normally reserved for Saudi princes, but because he may not have actually broken any laws, that somehow makes him redemptive. The villainy gets reduced to a few bad apples rather than a system run amuck, removing any sense of social conscience in favor of tired happy endings and a sense that things really are okay after all.
And again, none of that would matter if the film generated more than the barest handful of chuckles. Comedies live or die on the equation. If they deliver the ha-ha, all sins are forgiven; if they don’t, their failures stand out all the more. Get Hard flails about madly for traction, but suffers from fatal injuries at the conceptual level and can’t even begin to recover. Ferrell has made shaky projects work on pure star power before, but even he seems to have given up on this one. The audience is strongly advised to follow his example.