Before I talk about Get Hard, the terminally lousy new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, let me write about a similar movie I like a lot. There’s a famous scene in Silver Streak, the 1976 comedy that was the first to pair Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Midway through the movie, Pryor and Wilder are on the run from cops, who corner them at a train station and aim to prevent them from escaping on a departing locomotive. Pryor comes up with a unique getaway plan: he’s going to take Wilder into the men’s room and teach him “how to be black.” In addition to showing Wilder some over-the-top stereotypes, he covers his face with shoe polish, gives him a “jive” disguise and instructs him how to sneak past the cops. Wilder’s performance more than fools the authorities, but, even in the late ’70s, his “act” is pretty offensive. What makes the scene so hilarious are the reaction shots of Pryor, looking mortified by the “monster” he created. There’s also a shot of African-Americans in the station who are appalled at Wilder’s routine, while the Caucasians on hand don’t seem to notice. The scene is as un-PC as it gets but I think it works because it’s addressing and mocking the stereotypes it portrays.
Get Hard is like a film-length extension of that scene in Silver Streak. Ferrell is a dopey businessman who must serve time in San Quentin Prison and foolishly hires Hart, playing the man who washes his car, to teach him how to be tough in jail. Hart’s character has never been in prison and isn’t tough at all but a mild-mannered family man who Ferrell thinks went to prison just because he’s black.
The set-up suggests a twist on a classic buddy comedy scenario and aims to spoof issues of race, the ignorance of privileged One-Percenters and how stereotypes, racial and otherwise, taint our understanding of the truth. Ferrell’s racist belief that most African-Americans have been to jail is countered by Hart’s “teaching” him all he knows about jail. I laughed at what looks like an improvised bit with Ferrell reciting tough guy putdowns and I was amused how Ferrell’s staff and lavish home become facsimiles for a prison community.
Somewhere around the time Ferrell dons “hood” gear, makes friends with the Crenshaw Mafia and learns to be a “gangsta,” I gave up. The intent of sending up racist stereotypes gave way to fully embracing them. I hated scenes of Steve Martin (in a career low) going to “the hood” in Bringing Down The House and it’s equally depressing watching Ferrell slum it on the same path.
Ferrell played a similar white collar, lovable doofus in The Other Guys. Here, he’s done in by bad material. Ferrell will likely brush this misstep off but I’m worried about Hart, a hard-working, talented comic actor, who has been appearing in some unfortunate vehicles of late.
Hart clearly wants to be the next Eddie Murphy, as evidenced by a moment that tries hard to mimic a key scene in 48 HRS; that film had a tense, rousing scene where Murphy walks into a redneck bar and intimidates everyone present. Here, Hart stands up against a group of white supremacists with a flame thrower and only demonstrates how Murphy and director Walter Hill did it better 33 years ago.
An hour in, this becomes a parade of unfunny gags, served by two comic actors who can’t mine laughs from rotten material. In addition to the Minstrel show-ready gags, there’s also a scene where Ferrell attempts to learn fellatio, one of many moments where an attempt to be edgy comes across as truly ugly.