Silver Screen: Get Hard *
Will Ferrell plays a white-collar criminal sentenced to jail time who must turn to an ex-con played by Kevin Hart to learn how to survive life behind bars.
Screwing up a comedy premise this surefire ought to be a crime, yet the filmmakers behind Get Hard have managed to do just that, watering down an intriguing concept until it’s a thin gruel for two legit stars to slop out to anyone sentenced to sit through it.
Though there’s no official connection, Get Hard was likely inspired at least in part by a popular 2009 Los Angeles Times article about real-life prison coach Larry Levine, a former inmate who toughens up white-collar jailbirds-to-be for their stint in the pokey. Levine isn’t the only player in this upstart business; just Google “prison coach” for listings.
It’s an intriguing idea sure to make for some cross-cultural conflicts between the streetwise (or maybe cell-wise) instructor and his woefully unprepared students. Comedy thrives on opposites and extremes, after all, and what two bigger stars more directly personify that than pasty giant Ferrell and diminutive black superstar Hart?
So how do you screw it up? In this case, by not actually doing it at all.
For starters, Hart’s character Darnell isn’t a thug, he’s just a hardworking small businessman mistaken for one by clueless financial titan James King (Ferrell). King is so removed from reality that when the same small-time entrepreneur who washes his car every week knocks on his window to return his keys, he thinks he’s being carjacked. He assumes Darnell has done prison time and can help him prepare for his time up the river.
Not only is Darnell not a crook, neither is King. Despite being a financial wiz who makes $28 million in one day for the company owned by his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson), he’s a naïve simpleton incapable of assessing anyone’s character. That includes his fiancée (Alison Brie), a fickle golddigger who is inexplicably marrying him only for his money when she’s already heir to daddy’s fortune.
Even in the movie world, the rich white guy is innocent by default. It’s a weak, unconfident move that serves as a perfect example of Get Hard’s toothlessness, even when it’s straining to posture itself as a race-conscious social satire. Instead it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy where both fish are estranged from their elements. Darnell is as clueless in recreating the details of prison life as James is at adapting to them. Darnell is faking it based on some inside info from his shady cousin Russell, a gang leader played by rapper T.I.
Instead of dealing with anything like real characters and consequences, director Etan Cohen structures his story around a frustratingly simple and implausible frameup job, complete with a generic gun-wielding henchman (Paul Ben Victor), all of it flagrantly lazy and uninteresting. The frameup job comes straight out of a bad 1980s comedy, while the high volume of prison-rape jokes suggests more ideas pilfered from a less-enlightened era.
Hart and Ferrell handmake a few laughs in the true spirit of men confined to a dingy, uncomfortable place, brewing up a little toilet wine to pass the time. Hart shines brightest in scenes with his skeptical wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson), while Ferrell is at his best when paired with Russell and his gangsta crew. But these are talented guys who could make waiting for a bus at least moderately amusing. They could be fantastic in an alternate version of Get Hard that has enough courage in its convictions to dole out some actual convictions. Instead, they’ve pled down to something far lesser.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.