Is it that hard to make a lowbrow comedy? More crummy sitcom than movie, Night School casts Kevin Hart as Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who enrolls in a kooky GED class after losing his job as a gas grill salesman. (It literally goes up in flames in a belabored pyrotechnic stunt.) If going back to his old Atlanta high school weren’t bad enough, he gets off on the wrong foot with his instructor, Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), an overworked AP math teacher just trying to make ends meet. He talks fast, she talks trash; as in Hart’s earlier odd-couple pairings, with Will Ferrell in Get Hard, Dwayne Johnson in Central Intelligence, and Ice Cube in Ride Along, the chemistry between the two is just about the only good thing the movie has going for it. Otherwise, its shambolic 111-minute running time is mostly filled with lackadaisical plotting and jokes about farts, puke, and pubes—things that are funny in real life, but less so under the leaden direction of Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip), the nastier and weirder gags diluted by a PG-13 rating and a dozen subplots.
Teddy, we learn, quit school because of undiagnosed dyslexia, and has been faking his way ever since, living paycheck to paycheck to hold onto his leased Porsche and keep up with the lifestyle of a fiancée (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who’s way out of his league—a neutered mix of anxieties about class, manhood, and overcompensation that, by this point, is typical of Hart’s mismatched-buddy movies. Returning to Piedmont High after 17 years, he discovers that Stewart (Taran Killam), the three-nippled dork who used to make fun of his bad grades, is now the principal, and that his smooth salesman routine doesn’t work on Carrie. No, he has to do the work (via cheesy montage), all while keeping both the evening classes and his new job at a Chick-Fil-A-parodying evangelical fast food joint called Christian Chicken (“where the chicken is Christian for some reason”) a secret from his fiancée.
The other dropouts in the GED class are a roster of one-note weirdos, including a repressed housewife (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a Terminator-obsessed conspiracy nut (Romany Malco), and an oafish working-class dad (Rob Riggle) who goes by “Big Mac,” but has never heard of McDonald’s or its signature two-all-beef-patties burger. (Like so many ostensible gags in Night School, this joke is dragged out interminably as students recite Mickey D’s jingles in an effort to jog his memory.) Not that Night School spends that much time in the classroom. Instead, the script—amazingly credited to six writers—follows what’s become a hack formula of studio comedies, escalating violently and then heading into the next scene as though nothing happened. Lee’s directorial imprint consists of boring, teleconference-like shot compositions and a tin ear for music.
Before long, the gang is breaking into the principal’s office to steal the answers to a midterm in a never-ending sequence that involves choking out a janitor and one character apparently breaking his arm. But the scene’s vague consequences aren’t an example of Adam McKay-esque surrealism, just indifference. It’s true that, to some extent, we let shoddiness slide when it comes to comedies; a lot of classics are far from epitomes of rock-solid movie craft. Night School squanders Hart and Haddish’s rapport by having the latter play it straight, the gross and raunchy stuff reined in by the rating and feel-good life lessons. In the end, it comes up with just over half a dozen decent jokes—about one per writer.