The best part of “Get Hard,” the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, isn’t even in the movie. It actually has nothing to do with it.
No, the best thing about “Get Hard,” a film about a dorky white man and a boring black man, and all their mutually served racial exploitations, took place last week during the promotion of the movie, when Ferrell visited fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Jimmy Fallon at “The Tonight Show.”
Ferrell, the tall, milky, average man, dressed as Little Debbie, the quaint, pie-eyed, darling farm girl. Head to toe, from the strawberry curls to the wholesome gingham sundress. Ferrell defiantly stayed in character for the entire first segment and much of the second, when Fallon would eventually get around to mentioning the film.
It could not have been more a blatant distraction than if he had ushered in a glittered elephant in a tutu.
To be fair, these gags are not entirely uncommon on late night, especially on Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” And they are thoroughly entertaining for obvious reasons. As far as promotion goes, it would surely be a successful reminder to audiences of Ferrell’s brand and box-office draw, if not the premise of the movie for sale.
But the press machine that prepped this appearance had more up its sleeve. That’s because critics and preview audiences reportedly already had been up in arms about the film’s perceived racism, which, frankly, is neither here nor there. I’m not discounting myriad reactions the material’s many stereotypes might incite from its diversified audiences, nor am I saying they’re completely unfounded.
But I’m of the general rule of thumb, and so, I trust, is Ferrell – he who has headlined the biggest comedies of the last 15 years; he who reinvigorated “SNL’s” political wit with a charming, stupid George W. Bush; and he who won the 2011 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor – that comedy should take no prisoners. In “Get Hard,” everyone’s a criminal of one comedy crime or another.
Which makes the circuslike distraction on “The Tonight Show” so uncomfortable.
Having seen this film, it seems obvious that Ferrell was not avoiding negative press but was just embarrassed to be in it. So much that he would rather dress up like a little girl and devour snack cakes than talk about this movie he made and co-produced.
His character in the film is just as shameful. The movie opens on a close-up of a sobbing James King (Ferrell), the wealthy banker found guilty of tax fraud. His tears are hilarious unto themselves; Ferrell’s antiheroes have never been too masculine, however confident or monolithic. Dramatically speaking, you understand immediately that James is not only a pathetic, wealthy, white loser, but an innocent one.
When James asks Darnell (Hart), who operates the car washing service in James’ office parking garage, if he can prepare him for 10 years in maximum-security prison, the racial stereotypes start getting lobbed. It’s the only joke the movie has, and the movie’s just begun.
Darnell sells his survival services for a hefty $30,000, just enough to secure a down payment on a better house in a better school district for his family. Even though he’s never been to prison.
In a way, Darnell is as guilty a social fraud as James is. And in another way, James, who was framed for his crimes by his boss and father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson), is as innocent of life as Darnell.
There’s logic to this, and it succeeds in surprising ways. It promotes a smart first act, one that mocks James’ ignorance of middle-class values without turning him into a villain, and by giving his would-be victims – his Bel Air mansion’s extensive, over-it staff – the leg up. It employs a sharp satiric tone that is at times very clever.
If this were a short story, published in a literary collection of a year’s best wit, it would sound dry, contemporary and astute, like “Office Space.” But it’s not. It’s a big, dumb buddy comedy with lame characters and lame gags.
Sure, it’s funny sometimes; most flatulence is. Yes, I laughed at many parts; I’m not headless. But, I mean, of course it’s not a good movie. It’s an expected vehicle for two popular comedians, whose film and stand-up personas are mere footsteps away from those on display here.
You’ll know the ending before you finish your popcorn, and you’ll wait for it to come as soon as the opening credits – one of the cleverer details at play, by the way – kick in. There’s absolutely no surprise in anything that unfolds, and therefore no payoff.
I’m not sure what else to expect from mainstream comedy these days. Hollywood’s comedy is just a giant slot machine of actor-types, plot templates and product placement. At this point, I’d rather see Will Ferrell in a dress.
Starring: Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Craig T. Nelson
Director: Etan Cohen
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive crude and sexual content and language, some graphic nudity and drug material.
The Lowdown: A millionaire convicted for fraud enlists a friend to help him prep to go behind bars.