Cross culture buddy comedies are a tradition in America. So is teaming up huge comedic stars. And so is making fun of white people for being cowards. Get Hard recycles all these ideas in a predictable, surprisingly friendly way, but it doesn't improve on any of them. With the exception of a few inspired moments of clever writing, Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart's new comedy is totally forgettable.
Get Hard begins with James King (Ferrell) waking up pleasantly in his modern mansion with his beautiful wife (Alison Brie). He goes to work, makes millions, makes partner, and is suddenly arrested for fraud at his own party. Even more quickly, he's tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, a term he doesn't have to start for 30 days so he uses that time to learn "how not to be someone's bitch."
For help, he turns to Darnell (Hart), the dude who washes his car. Darnell's no hardened criminal, but he's black, and James immediately assumes he's been to prison. Seeking $30,000 for his new car wash, Darnell agrees to prep James for the big house. That's the set-up and it's just as rushed as it seems.
From the opening frame, James is a crier. Ferrell and his writers, director Etan Cohen and the Key and Peele team of Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, fully establish James' deep cowardice. He backs down from his wife, worships her dad, his boss (Craig T. Nelson), and he shrinks like a frightened turtle when he first sees Darnell approach him in his hoodie.
It's hard to root for a wimp. And Get Hard gives us two. By making Hart a normal guy instead of a real criminal, the movie is working against itself. Get Hard's best sequences find James in the middle of the Crenshaw Kings, led by Darnell's cousin, Russell (T.I.). That's what we want: The wimpiest white guy imaginable in the middle of a South Central gang hangout. That way, the comedy can be pushed to extremes. Instead Darnell trains James in the mansion by turning his tennis court into "the yard" and making him sleep on a cot. There's a Gondry-esque charm to the guys playing make believe, but it seems like a wasted opportunity to get Ferrell in a room with some seriously thugged out dudes and have some fun.
Also, the topical humor is well and good, but the stuff used in Get Hard is dated. Making Ferrell a Wall Street trader who jokes about taking people's money and not feeling bad is a bit on the nose. Likewise, the Trayvon Martin reference with Hart in the hoodie is overcooked. This type of humor doesn't fit Ferrell's style, and it's not really funny anyways, it's observationally funny - the type of joke writing that belongs in the Saturday Night Live prologue with the rest of the easiest punchlines of the week.
What Get Hard does have, that no weak writing can take away, is Ferrell. Long the comedic treasure of his generation, the 47-year-old is still as verbally creative as ever, dropping lines like "How many times did I breathe in clean air fragrant with lavender, and take it for granted?" And he gets a bunch of chances to shine, like when he practices his smack talking with a digital recorder. It's the magic of Ferrell's sarcasm that creates the most laughs. But he's shackled by a story that makes him the student to Hart's teacher. Ferrell is historically funnier playing the leader, but he has to follow Hart most of the time in Get Hard.
For Hart's fans, they should enjoy the comedian's high energy performance. But I'm in the camp that believes he's best as a supporting actor, not a lead. He can pull off lead roles because he's so likable, but he's funnier in short bursts, like a spitballing machine gun. Listening to him motor his way through scene after scene in Get Hard is exhausting. And he's overmatched by Ferrell, who has a history of outshining his co-stars (Jon Heder, Mark Wahlberg, Zach Galifianakis). But I give credit to both the actors for their dedication to the material. The only reason the movie is watchable at all is because of its two stars. Get Hard is too often lazy, too often redundant, and too often reliant on old ideas without supplying any new ones of its own.