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Review: 'Get Hard' offers sloppy racial jokes, gay panic

Will Ferrell is off his game against Kevin Hart in a film that half-heartedly sends up race relations, sort of, when it feels like it.

Get HardGet Hard

‘Get Hard’
Director:
Etan Cohen
Stars: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

It might not seem worth complaining that the Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart team-up “Get Hard” is sloppy and visually undistinguished. But it should be. Ferrell, at least, has a skilled director and writing partner in Adam McKay, who’s responsible for “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” — the ones that aren’t paycheck soulsuckers. McKay inspires in his star craft and invention, and even knows how to make films look handsome. (Along with nailing the look of action cinema without sacrificing yuks, “The Other Guys” has one of the great purely visual gags of the last 30 years.) Knowing what Ferrell is capable of makes lazy tax write-offs like “Get Hard” seems all the more galling.

But there’s something else here that’s missing, but which every now and then winds up in the film anyway. At heart, this is a rude comedic riff on the state of race relations in America. Ferrell plays James King, a super-accountant for a mighty firm (run by Craig T. Nelson!) who’s busted for tax evasion (and, it seems, wrongly). The judge is sick of white-collar crooks heading to country club prisons, so she decides he’ll be the first thrown into the dregs of regular prison. James is in no way prepared for this, so he asks the guy who owns the company that cleans his Mercedes — Hart’s Darnell Lewis — to teach him in the ways of being tough. After all, he thinks, surely Darnell’s been to prison before. (He hasn’t.)

“Get Hard”s three writers — none of them Ferrell or McKay — don’t do much with this farcical idea beyond the initial idea that a privileged white guy would assume all non-rich black people are ex-cons. But they do try, a little. They keep putting James and Darnell into situations to play with not only their racial hang-ups but the audience’s as well. Darnell may have a clean record, but a relative (T.I.) is a Compton thug right out of one the ’90s rash of ghetto sagas — which, of course, James has never seen. Darnell, scrambling to protect his thin ruse, even passes off the plot of “Boyz N tha Hood” as his own life with James, none-the-wiser, fighting to hold back tears.

At times “Get Hard” seems smarter and more savage than it lets on, lampooning general assumptions of modern black life that stem from old movies and bygone rap records. It’s still a dumb movie, but the kind of dumb movie that, by bravely (or stupidly) strutting its way into prickly social discussions accidentally makes cogent points about same. Other times it's content to dress Ferrell in "black clothes" while blasting rap, as though that wasn't amonst the easiest jokes in 21st century filmmaking. But most of its jokes aren't about race at all, but about simple mismatched pair humor and lots of not particularly inspired ad-libbing. Hart has the magnetism to make even the lamest joke seem at least enjoyable. (And there are scant short jokes, for what little — heh? — it’s worth.) But it’s easy to tell when Ferrell’s game is off, and most of his tossed-off lines or mouth noises are just that, as though he was biding time until his next McKay joint.

Worst of all, “Get Hard” confirms that 2015 is the year dumb gay panic jokes made a rally back into mainstream comedies. The extended riff here isn’t as egregious as the one in “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” — which was, in fact, an entire set piece based on the belief that there’s nothing worse than having an actual peen inside one of a man’s actual orifices — but it’s still Cro-Magnon. In interviews, Ferrell and Hart have tried to explain away this business by saying funny’s funny and besides, the joke is really on the characters’ regressive beliefs.But Ferrell’s James is ultimately a lovable buffoon — an idiot savant who fell in with the rich nasties, and Darnell is more or less his straight man (and how, apparently). James is not an evil bigot, he’s just stupid, and the film never seems enlightened enough to make a line like “Fear of d—-sucking will make a man strong” not play into the insecure straight bro’s innate fear of bro-on-bro canoodling. Like McKay, Ferrell is an unapologetic progressive who doesn’t mind enraging a fat chunk of his potential audience. He’s even mocked viewers’ homophobia before, via an epic make-out session with Sacha Baron Cohen in “Talladega Nights.” Here he backslides. But it’s clear “Get Hard” doesn’t think one should expect any better.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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