Kevin Hart

"Kevin Hart: What Now" finds the comic selling out Philadelphia's Lincoln FinanciaFrank Masi

‘Kevin Hart: What Now’
Leslie Small, Tim Story
Stars: Kevin Hart, Halle Berry
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The movies don’t know what to do with Kevin Hart. How could they? Like a lot of comics, he is — we swear this isn’t another “Kevin Hart is short” joke — too big for the screen, too explosive for the likes of the “Ride Along”s, “Get Hard” or “Central Intelligence.” He’s best when he’s on his own, feeding off not co-stars but a rapt, Roman Colosseum-sized audience, free to surf down deep, weird neural passageways towards bits about crotch-grabbing raccoons.

His concert movies are where he really thrives — in theory. “Let Me Explain,” his second, ran 71-minutes and was still padded-out with a 20-minute, joke-free overture. “What Now,” his third, has a lengthy intro, too — a Bond parody that, a decent subtitle gag and some Don Cheadle ball-busting aside, serves as a reminder that he’s best without a script. That’s clear once the big show starts. Caterwauling about Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field’s stage in front of a towering slideshow that looks like a Borscht Belt version of Genesis’ old “Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” shows, he brags about the night’s record-breaking crowd and concludes by calling it “the best night of my f—king life.”

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To be honest, it’s merely a better-than-average show. There’s a theme: What, indeed, now — now that he’s super rich, now that he’s in the L.A. suburbs, now that he’s an undeniable icon attracting a rainbow-colored crowd? Does he still have jokes? He does, but he’s mostly an ADD-addled man-child, breaking free of his own constraints, spinning off loopy running gags about people without shoulders. The most sustained bit comes midway through, with a story involving “The Conjuring,” his famously stubborn father and a malfunctioning wheelchair. Usually they’re disconnected, only occasionally elaborating on his deep-seated concerns, like gripes about his kids being softened by private school, that they lack the edge that made their dad a rock star comic.

Hart is always funny even when his material is just alright; he has enough energy for a Hydrogen bomb. He's out-sold Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, so we might as well compare them: Hart lacks their discipline, their spluttering genius. Both sometimes looked like they were having nervous breakdowns in front of cackling throngs. Hart is more calculated with his confessions; his pleas to laugh at his pain, to channel his first stand-up movie, are more brand than keeping it 100. His stories are obvious embellishments, and his admissions — he repeatedly admits to being shallow and self-involved, and one story sounds like his own remake of the Swedish movie “Force Majeure” — seem like mere jokes, not secrets that have escaped from deep within. He caps the movie off with an extended riff mocking Starbucks that sounds like it’s been collecting dust since 1998.

It’s worth nothing, though, that that last one does quickly devolve into a silly symphony of inspired mouth noises. Here he takes so-so material and spins it into something gold-adjacent by sheer force of will. Hart is immensely, insanely talented, but he may the type who can only tap into his genius by working his way towards it, knifing through a thicket of false starts. Listening to him is like soaking in a jazz musician noodling his or her way to the most killer part of an epic solo. No matter what, it’s always a pleasure to watch the man work.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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