Review: “Get Hard”

The premise of “Get Hard” is a simple one. Will Ferrell is an oblivious, white, super rich Ivy League banker with zero street smarts. Kevin Hart is an African-American family man with a cute kid and a smart and hot wife who struggles to get by with his car washing small business. When Ferrell’s character is framed for investment fraud and given a month to gets his affairs in order, he seeks Hart’s help to prep him for hard time in prison after mistaking Hart for an ex-con who knows about this stuff.

This would lead you to believe a bunch of humor revolves around making fun of class and racial stereotypes, and to be fair the film’s focus on that kind of humor tends to result in its few jibes that work. That’s arguably because the two key writers of the film pen skits for “Key and Peele,” perhaps the best (if somewhat toothless) small screen successor we’ve had to Dave Chappelle in terms of being able to handle the tricky balance of race related humor that can be edgy without crossing the line into offensiveness.

Yet, instead of carefully and smartly constructing the material on offer, they take the decidedly more amateur approach here of throwing up every gag they can think of on the wall. That’s combined with Apatow-style, on-set actor improv moments in the hope that something sticks. There’s no careful deconstruction or ironic skewering of stereotypes, and no incisive or intelligent laughs to be had, “Get Hard” simply indulges in every single backwards view about every different minority it can think of in the hopes that people will be “shocked into laughter”.

Sadly only the most easily offended will find things shocking here, most will simply find themselves frequently bored or astonished at how dated this all feels, like something ‘edgy’ from the early 1980s (or older) escaped from a film storage locker somewhere and is only now getting released. It’s almost as strangely misguided as re-watching a very young Eddie Murphy’s stand-up where a guy in a body hugging red leather catsuit bitches about how he can’t go outside because all the ‘f-ggots’ want to rape him and use their female friends to give him AIDS.

Yes for a film that’s supposed to be about sending up racial and class stereotypes, there’s a grotesque and oddly aggressive fixation on ‘gay panic’ humor and jokes about sexual assault. Every other minute there’s a crack about prison rape, every few minutes there’s some throwaway suggestion on how disgusting or weird gay sex is, and every straight man is scared sh–less of anything remotely gay even as they sport fixations with cocks, fellatio and anal sex that would make the easiest of rent boys say “enough already”.

This is best epitomised in one scene where Ferrell and Hart visit the “hottest gay hookup in L.A.” and Ferrell is ordered by Hart to suck a guy off in the toilets. Ferrell and character actor Matt Walsh are both veteran comedians who try and have fun with the scene, but it plays out merely as painfully awkward rather than uproariously funny as it so desperately wants to be.

At the same time there’s a strange attempt at a joke where Hart is being hit on by a very average-looking gay guy who won’t take no for an answer (a subplot that comes back very briefly later). I’m not sure what’s the more offensive and dated stereotype in play here – that gays (hot or not) are lecherous creeps who will do anything to get with any man, or Hart being one of those average-looking straight guys who thinks gays consider him red hot when in reality he would strike out far more with men than he already does with women.

It’s not that you can’t satirise this material, on the contrary the subject of masculinity is one ripe for clever skewering considering how some of the most macho of men engage in bromances that go beyond mere affection and into the realm of real sexual intimacy. Or the potentially harmful way some straight men routinely ‘gay flirt’ with other men they know not for legitimate and healthy reasons of genuine affection, curiosity or mutual amusement, but purely for their own selfish ego stroking and self-validation.

To do that though requires smarts and well structured jokes with a good grasp on the subject matter, something the all too tired and familiar material simply doesn’t offer. There’s a semblance of a plot which is essentially ignored until the last twenty minutes to make room for more Ferrell/Hart sparring, and by then it feels rushed and uninteresting.

Etan Cohen, best known for writing the likes of “Tropic Thunder” and “Men in Black 3”, makes his directorial debut on the film and it shows. From the obvious song choices to the all too tight framing which often seems off the mark, the film looks and feels fairly pedestrian and runs overly long – even though it clocks in at just 100 minutes.

If there’s a saving grace it’s the cast. Ferrell and Hart have a fun chemistry that plays off each well, and Hart in particular proves his acting chops with a couple of key sequences such as a clever bit with him playing three different types of prisoners. Most of the supporting cast has little to do, but Cohen has cast them well with the likes of T.I. and Alison Brie being better than the material they’re given, while Edwina Findley Dickerson as Hart’s wife gets the best laugh of the film without question. One exception is John Mayer’s cameo which is a complete waste.

“Get Hard” is arguably up there with the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah comedy “Bringing Down the House” in terms of an American studio comedy that feels about two or three decades behind the times. Like that film you have good performers saddled with god awful material that just feels off from the get go.