It’s tempting to view Get Hard as the passing of a baton. Yes, Will Ferrell is 47 and hasn’t been starring in many movies lately,unlike Kevin Hart, who is only 35. But comedy doesn’t have succession plans and there’s enough room for actors of slightly different generations to enjoy hits and endure misses. Likely the latter, this film is, more than anything else, an old-fashioned buddy comedy.
If you thought that Ferrell and Adam McKay had gotten disgust with financial industry corruption out of their system with the facts and figures in The Other Guys’ end credits, you thought wrong. Actually, McKay, who shares story credit with screenwriters Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, and Ferrell, his production partner and frequent collaborator, don’t have much new to say about white collar crime. But that world sets the scene and drives the plot.
James King (Ferrell), a one percenter with little compassion for and understanding of the other 99%, is arrested by federal agents at a party celebrating him being made partner at his hedge fund corporation. A man of great wealth and minimal intuition, James claims innocence and resists a plea bargain deal that will get him out of prison in a year. Instead, he is sentenced to serve ten years at San Quentin.
Given thirty days to get his affairs in order before doing time, James turns to Darnell (Hart), the small business owner who washes his car at work every day. Because Darnell is black, James assumes he’s done prison time. The mild-mannered family man has not, but he claims otherwise when James offers to pay him $30,000 to be his “incarceration expert.” The sum is the amount Darnell needs to buy a new house and get his daughter out of South Central L.A.’s intimidating school district.
Darnell teaches James what to expect from such a notorious correctional facility, training him to “mad dog”, talk trash, and fashion a shiv. Darnell’s wisdom comes from an awkward phone call to a distant relative. He lifts his crime story from Boyz n the Hood. He carves out a small section of James’ mansion to create a cramped jail cell and has the hired help play short-tempered fellow inmates.
Of course, James may be a prejudiced idiot, but he’s no felon. The film allows James and Darnell to bond and then to join forces to prove James’ innocence, turning them into “Mayo and Chocolate.”Get Hard feels a little bit like a throwback, perhaps because the buddy comedy was in 1990 Even then, you can imagine the villain being played by Craig T. Nelson, who the movie allows us to identify as such a few minutes before revealing his true nature. Apart from its subgenre, Get Hard otherwise is clearly the 2015 version of an R-rated comedy. Obscenities fly left and right. Over-the-top outrageousness includes the appearance of a penis (surely a realistic prosthetic) in a surprisingly prolonged scene in which James tries to acquaint himself with performing fellatio. Much of the packed house at my screening laughed at such bits, but these jokes are the kind that won’t play as well in the comfort and company of your home.
This is far from Ferrell’s first foray into R-rated fare, but something is clearly lost when a comedy settles for shocking instead of amusing. For Ferrell, that something is the wit, creativity, and sharp characterization that made him one of the standout comedy icons of the Noughties and the rare “Saturday Night Live” alumnus to turn genuine movie star. Sure, Get Hard has some laughs and there is some humor in its premise of an ordinary working class black man adopting a thug act to train a white man of privilege too stupid to realize it. But you expect more from the guy whose contributions to comedy this century — Anchorman! Elf! Step Brothers! — are thus unrivaled in significance. It is possible Ferrell is losing his touch, as all funnymen eventually do. His last really satisfying vehicle was The Other Guys back in 2010; even the much-anticipated Anchorman sequel underwhelmed. I hope a rebound to past heights is possible.
Most of Ferrell’s best film work has come with McKay at the helm. Directing here is Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen of the Coen brothers), a first-timer with twenty years of writing to his name, most significantly contributing to Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy, and Men in Black 3. Cohen, who shares screenplay credit with Martel and Roberts, has been on comedy sets long enough to know his way around filmmaking. But the material here often just isn’t good enough to generate the fits and howls it wants to. The cast isn’t put to excellent use. Ferrell and Hart have moments, but their chemistry is less fruitful than the other interracial pairings it recalls, from Trading Places to Nothing to Lose. Alison Brie is reduced to peripheral titillation as James’ equally out-of-touch lingerie-clad trophy fiancée (and his boss’ daughter).
As both lead actors can attest to, buddy comedies can put up big numbers at the box office. Still, I would be very surprised if Get Hard performed anywhere near as well as Ride Along and The Other Guys.