Before the rise of cable television, stand-up films offered pretty much the only option for comedians to do full sets in a visual medium, aside from quick five-minute bits on talk or variety shows. Once cable networks offered another means to achieve the same thing, stand-up films became a lot less important. These days they mostly connote status.
Kevin Hart doubles down on that by shooting Let Me Explain at Madison Square Garden, where performing—especially a sold-out comedy show—has long served as the ultimate indicator of success. (Andrew “Dice” Clay recorded an album there at the height of his fame, as did Dane Cook.) To take the whole experience over the top, Hart takes the stage to lasers, a garishly electric backdrop, and pyrotechnics worthy of a hair-metal band. It’d be a little embarrassing, but he immediately undercuts it. “No comedian has ever had fire!” he shouts. “You’re gonna see a bunch of pointless fire,” he adds, then uses it throughout the set as a sort of orchestra hit, often to mark how much he’s killing it.
An audience seeing Let Me Explain won’t need the cues. The film opens with a 20-minute preamble chronicling Hart’s successful international tour, complete with gushing testimonials from audience members after shows and similarly enthusiastic tweets from people who were there. As an unidentified man from Hart’s team (the “Plastic Cup Boyz”) says during a quick montage of talking heads, “He’s becoming a global brand.” Who’s ready to laugh?
The tour footage is an odd pivot from the funny opening, where Hart hosts a party for fans. It plays like an opening sketch from an HBO stand-up special, but segues into Hart talking directly to the camera in a car, then to the road footage, then to him walking underneath MSG (as he says a prayer via voiceover) to ascend to the stage. Directors Tim Story and Leslie Small, the latter a veteran of stand-up films (including Hart’s 2011 special, Laugh At My Pain), underplay nothing. Even the names in the opening credits have little starbursts.
The long buildup would be damning if Hart didn’t deliver, but he’s in the zone for the duration of the film. Noticeably more amped up than he’s been on previous specials or albums, Hart launches into his set praising the wonders of divorce (echoes of Louis C.K. and Jen Kirkman) and keeps the focus personal, from adjusting to life as a single man to the inevitability of his kids having a stepdad. On Laugh At My Pain, he talked about his parents and extended family a lot, but he keeps the focus closer on Let Me Explain. He also tones down the callbacks, which grew tiresome on Laugh At My Pain.
Although much of the material here treads well-worn territory, Hart smartly twists it; a bit about his habitual lying turns into a long, bizarre tangent about a “Benjamin Button baby” and a deer/zebra hybrid called a deerbra. It’s thoroughly strange, but funny, and Hart’s motormouthed delivery sells it. One of Hart’s best attributes is how he sabotages any of his swagger with self-deprecation; his voice goes into a feminine upper register when he’s caught doing something he shouldn’t be, and in one hilarious bit, he cries after an awkward physical confrontation.
Let Me Explain finds Hart at the peak of his powers, so the film’s long coronation feels justified, if gaudy. Strip away the preamble and just give him a mic, and he’d earn it all the same.