Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart look like a comedy team. When the towering, beady-eyed Ferrell shares a frame with the diminutive, fast-talking Hart in their comedy Get Hard, they can get laughs, or at least smiles, just from their mismatched physicalities. Whether he’s exercising tasteful restraint or just studio-comedy carelessness, director and cowriter Etan Cohen doesn’t lean heavily on this contrast. He arranges a few sight gags positioning Hart as a liftable, throwable buddy for Ferrell, the soft-bodied giant, but more often Cohen is content to cut mechanically between one-shots of his stars.
Ferrell’s comedies with Adam McKay have plenty of simply blocked scenes like that, built around simple dialogue, but McKay knows how to foster the kind of improvisation that enlivens less imaginative set-ups. McKay produced Get Hard with Ferrell and has a story credit, which is about the amount his input is detectable in the final product. The story hook has McKay’s satirical edge, picking up where The Other Guys left off regarding white-collar criminals: Ferrell plays James King, a financial executive arrested for fraud and wholly unprepared to deal with any punishment, while Hart plays Darnell, the owner of a small carwash who King mistakes for an ex-con. Following through on this racist assumption, James hires Darnell to help prepare him for prison. Divisions between wealthy haves and hard working have-nots are clearly on the film’s mind, as the opening credits roll over images juxtaposing wealthy white folks and non-white people serving them through more menial jobs.
But before the movie has even really begun, it’s already fudging its own premise and undermining its satire. James insists that he’s innocent (and Ferrell seems too sheltered and fragile to be lying), and the filmmakers, knowing full well how many white-collar criminals get off lightly, have a judge sentence him to 10 years in a maximum security prison without any real explanation. It’s the movie’s way of cutting to the chase, but that expediency denies the story any kind of satisfying comic logic or escalation.
Similarly, when Darnell, who’s actually a middle-class striver who wants to earn money to move to a nicer neighborhood, shows up with a multi-step lesson plan and helps James turn his mansion into a practice prison, it’s not a McKay-style flight of surrealism; it’s just kind of inexplicable. The movie never explains why Darnell would go to such elaborate trouble for what could be a relatively simple scam, and it’s not quite funny enough to make that leap without notice.
Darnell’s curriculum mostly has to do with winning fights and/or avoiding prison rape. The bits where Ferrell practices his bravado with strange swearing patterns and misguided fight challenges are funny; the prison rape stuff, though, is predictable and predictably tiresome. At one point, deciding that James might be better off learning to perform oral sex on other prisoners, Darnell brings him to a gay-friendly pick-up spot and James attempts to practice oral sex on a guy played by Matt Walsh. The scene doesn’t play especially homophobic—the joke is much more on Ferrell’s quivering squeamishness than the gay character—but it’s so muddled in its staging that whatever the punchline is supposed to be, it doesn’t land. The movie wants to get the shock laugh that comes from male nudity and then run away from the scene as fast as possible.
It could be that Cohen and company share the same squeamishness as James, but if they do, it seems to apply to almost any comic situation. A later scene where Darnell encourages James to pursue membership in an all-white gang for his protection, then must extract him from their clutches when it goes wrong, should be an instant classic, with Ferrell bluffing his way through racist rhetoric and Hart throwing himself into the fray. Instead, from its preface (a car scene where Darnell gives James permission to use a noxious racial epithet) to its final conflict, the sequence is more fitfully amusing than hilarious. It’s jumpy and scattered instead of punchy.
These scenes and others like them have some laughs, but they don’t even rise to the level of sketches; they’re more like skits. Ferrell and Hart are too likable and crowd-pleasing to let the movie collapse around them. But they’re also too talented for something this wan. Ultimately, white-collar criminals only get a slightly more substantial ribbing than they would in a slobs-versus-snobs comedy. Ferrell and McKay have an admirable track record in the realm of broad studio comedy (Hart, less so); for their team, this one feels like a placeholder. Insert socially conscious comedy here.