Let me get this out of the way up front. I didn’t like Elf (GASP!) and here’s why — Will Ferrell. I’ve never much cared for him as a comedian or actor. There just doesn’t seem to be anything natural about him. Unlike some of the greatest comedians of all time, such as Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, Gene Wilder, Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin (to name a few), Ferrell has a tendency to overachieve for laughs. At times it feels as if he’s willing people to find his “wild and crazy” antics funny, and at other times, he outright begs for it with forced buffoonery, something the greats never had to do. When it comes down to it, it’s all about honesty, and whether or not Ferrell is honest is beside the point — when on screen, it doesn’t feel honest; it simply feels he is acting the way he thinks people want him to act — with insufferable over-the-top insanity. The interesting thing is, this outrageous persona mostly works in Get Hard, albeit only because Kevin Hart brings honesty to an otherwise labored construction.
You know you’re in for a typical R-rated Ferrell with the opening scene, in which his character, high-end hedge fund manager James King, gets out of bed, naked as a jaybird, to workout in front of an open window where his gardener has a front-row seat. James has no shame, no filter and no balls, making him a self-appointed bigoted pansy who can’t see the truth when it’s staring him in the face. He’s clueless when it comes to the gold-digging tendencies of his new fiancee, Alissa (Alison Brie), the hatred boiling deep inside his co-workers, and the unassuming mask worn by his boss, Martin (Craig T. Nelson), all of which lead him to become the perfect patsy. Not only is James accused of fraud, but the judge decides to set an example for other white-collar, club-med prison wannabe’s by sentencing him to ten years in a maximum security prison, where someone like him is no doubt going to be bullied, beaten and raped. What’s a man to do? Hire a black guy to teach him how to survive, of course, because statistically speaking, one out of every three black men will be incarcerated at some point, so the odds are good that the black dude down the street will have the insight you need… right?
Little does James know that the black man he hires is not what he seems. In fact, Darnell (Hart) is a respectable family man who owns his own mobile car wash business and is simply trying to make a better life for his wife and daughter. Darnell has never once stepped foot in a prison, but in order to secure the $30,000 he needs to buy a new home in a high-end suburb (and subsequently send his daughter to a school that doesn’t need metal detectors at the doors), he agrees to help James with his situation.
The set-up, from top-to-bottom, is fraught with stereotypes that may offend a lot of people, and to that I say — good. A lot of comedies these days have no issues pushing the boundaries when it comes to bathroom humor and full-frontal nudity, but when it comes to political correctness issues, it becomes hands-off. Filmmakers, actors and comedians tend to spend more time these days worrying about whether or not they will offend that one person with touchy tendencies instead of letting loose and having fun. And at least Hart is having a lot of fun, regardless of what is said and done in the matters of race, class and sexual orientation.
One of the best scenes in the film involves Hart riffing on the idea of what makes up a maximum security prison. During the course of the film, Darnell transforms James’s house into a pseudo-prison, which includes turning his tennis court into a prison yard. To get a feel for what James might encounter in the yard, Darnell becomes several different people. Hart’s ability to jump back and forth in various stereotypical attitudes and personas has such an easy fluidity that borders on masterful. It’s one of those moments where you aren’t quite sure how much of it was scripted, if any at all. Whether it is or not, Hart makes it work because of how honest he makes it seem. Hopefully Ferrell was taking notes, because whether he knows it or not, there is a fine line between what can be considered offensive and what’s just done in bad taste — which, unfortunately, is in what Ferrell has become a master.
Like a lot of “edgy” comedies of late (mostly from the likes of Ferrell, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen), Get Hard spends a lot of time reaching for laughs in situations and circumstances that are not only forced, but fall into the category of bad taste. Was I offended by James’s vain attempt at giving a man a blowjob? Not at all, but the scene wasn’t necessary to further the plot or the characters. It was included because that seems to be what comedians think people want to see and for me, it just felt dirty. Instead of spending so much time on ideas that are so short-lived and ridiculous, hoping to push the boundaries just to push the boundaries, the filmmakers should have spent more time and energy into developing the subplots so that by the third act, they didn’t feel as rushed as they do.
The first, and most important subplot, involves James’s stance of innocence and his quest to find out who framed him. This idea is hinted at a couple of times within the first two-thirds of the film, but it doesn’t become a focus until a day or so before James’s thirty-day furlough is up. If a man like James knew he was innocent, I’d think this would be his number one priority, with the prospect of getting ready for prison as his number one back-up. James is of course very naive, so putting his faith in Martin to help find the culprit is certainly believable and stays in character. However, it seems the whole idea comes up short in the end without a lot of forethought or intrigue. A secondary subplot that also deserved more nurturing was Darnell’s attempt to get James into a gang so that he would have protection inside. The scenes are done very well and there is a spark of something more there that isn’t allowed to be let go the way it should have. But regardless of these, the film is funny, mostly because of Hart’s ability to exert so much energy yet still dial it back and switch gears on a dime to perfect the more subtle nuances of his character’s emotional core. He holds the film together without relying on help from anyone else, including Ferrell, who after this, I still don’t understand at all.
My Grade: B+
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