Movie Review: “Get Hard”

Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson, T.I.
Etan Cohen

“Get Hard” feels like the filmmakers are playing a prank on the audience. It has all of the beats and clichés of an ‘80s-era buddy cop action comedy, right down to the innuendo-laden one-liners, the score (just above porn quality) and the off-color jokes, which are ‘holy shit they did not just say that’ offensive. That seems to be the point – love ‘em or hate ‘em, a lot of the jokes in the ‘80s action films are in very poor taste – but that is also what makes the movie feel like a con. Are they merely trying to cast an unflattering light on the films from that era in order to show how tacky they are, or are they trying to trick modern-day audiences into laughing at a series of tasteless jokes, when deep down the audience knows that it shouldn’t? Either way, the movie isn’t playing fair, and even if it had played fair, it wouldn’t have mattered; there’s a condescension to it all that undercuts every barrier-pushing joke. Had they respected the audience, this could have been a much better movie. But they didn’t, and here we are.

James King (Will Ferrell) is a very successful hedge fund manager, engaged to the smoking hot daughter (Alison Brie) of his boss (Craig T. Nelson). He is living the dream, until he is arrested for a litany of fraud charges (of which James proclaims his innocence), and the judge throws the book at him, sentencing him to 10 years at San Quentin. James knows he’s a dead man walking in a prison like that, so he asks Darnell (Kevin Hart), who runs a small-budget car washing service that James uses, to teach him how to toughen up, to “get hard.” Why does James ask Darnell this? Because Darnell is black, and courtesy of his sabermetric expertise, James concludes that Darnell has spent time in jail. Darnell, of course, has not spent time in jail, but he needs cash to put a down payment on a house in a better neighborhood, so he takes James’ money and fakes it the best way he can. This plan will go horribly wrong for all concerned.

James King might be the hollowest man Will Ferrell has ever played. He’s the kind of kid who would have gone to Camp Mohawk every summer (Bill Murray fans just nodded knowingly), and because of his privileged upbringing, he can’t help but think of non-whites as ‘the help.’ People like him still exist these days, yes, but their numbers are thankfully dwindling, and regardless, they make for unsympathetic protagonists, what with the institutional racism and all. To use a phrase “Get Hard” would appreciate, James is a honkey of the highest order, and perhaps that is why the writers (one of which is longtime Ferrell writing partner Adam McKay) thought this would be so funny, sending the uber-white guy to his worst case scenario. And in their defense, that may have worked, had they put a little more effort into his character. Instead, they made James a sieve of a human being (a hopelessly naïve one at that), and the movie dies with that decision.

Which is a pity, because Hart acts the hell out of the ridiculousness the script throws at him. There is a scene where he is pretending to be several prison archetypes interacting with Ferrell at the same time in the outdoor part of the prison, and it is comedy gold. They put much less effort into, well, everyone else in the movie, particularly the white people. Brie’s comedic abilities are wasted here, as her character is a shallow piece of ass from start to finish. Nelson has just as little to work with, though T.I. actually fares quite well as Darnell’s gang-banging cousin Russell, while some of T.I.’s crew members get to talk about the stock market like they’re channeling the foul-mouthed genius triplets in “Me, Myself & Irene.” It’s funny, but it’s been done already.

Anyone can be offensive and clueless. It takes no skill whatsoever (just bad parenting and bad genes), so why reward a movie, made by intelligent people, for being that way on purpose? The really sad thing about “Get Hard” is that the film’s director, Etan Cohen, has worked in this arena before, and done it much better – he wrote the script for “Tropic Thunder,” which is just as crass as this (Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, anyone?), but also clever and unpredictable – so why did he go along with making this movie so dumb? In a parallel world, there is a version of this movie that is just as offensive, but also funny and smart. It’s a pity we will never see it.