Get Hard, a new Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart buddy comedy about a white-collar investor about to enter prison, is funnier than the poster image of a white man in cornrows makes it appear. In an era where most comedies are either obsessed with genre self-awareness (think Phil Lord and Chris Miller) or still running on a male-id algorithm programmed in the '90s (think Adam Sandler. . . or don't), it's refreshing to see one tuned into a present day that exists beyond the movies.
Ferrell plays James King, a pompous Bel Air one-percenter who practices capoeira on his mansion's manicured front lawn and has sex with his young fiancée (Alison Brie) on top of floor plans for an even bigger mansion. On the eve of being made partner at his firm, and shortly after soloing over John Mayer during a house party performance, James is arrested for embezzlement and fraud and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin State Prison. Meanwhile, his car washer, Darnell (Hart), is fighting to get his family out of the troubled L.A. neighborhood of Crenshaw and into the middle class. A racially motivated misunderstanding leads to a business opportunity: hiding his squeaky-clean record, Darnell will train James in the way of prison culture so he can survive on the inside.
Give credit where credit is due: This is a great concept for a comedy in 2015. It allows the filmmakers to play hot-button bingo with race, class, and the prison-industrial complex in ways that feel dangerous without being crass. Take the funny bit where Darnell, trying to demonstrate his faux-toughness, refers to his wife in a derogatory manner and is immediately punished for it. The joke sides with his wife. And James' assumption that Darnell went to prison raises questions, obviously, about the ideas he carries, which are hardly unique to his fictional self. Later, Darnell enlists James's underpaid groundskeepers—clad in hand-me-downs like a "Too Big To Fail-Palooza" business retreat T-shirt—to assist the "hardening" process. The movie walks a fine line, but it never goes sour, because it keeps punching up.
Get Hard is the feature directorial debut of Etan Cohen, whose name has appeared on many a comedy screenplay, from the meta-referential silliness of Tropic Thunder to the cult dystopia Idiocracy. His approach here is lo-fi, mostly confined to a couple of sets and simple static shots of Ferrell and Hart riffing. Cohen plays up their real-life height differentials, often returning to medium shots of the very short Hart successfully intimidating the very tall Ferrell (Hart often outshines his co-star with his hilarious physicality).
It could be mistaken for one of those cheap, grungy films aspiring comics shoot in their backyards, were it not for the script's four credited writers and cushy story arc—the latter half, featuring rapper T.I. as a gang leader, is more plot-driven and less funny. Other comedy directors should take note not to surround charismatic stars with excess story fat.
In what's sure to be the movie's most-discussed set piece, James trains himself to perform a sexual act he expects to encounter in prison and gets closer to the deed than the male hero of any other studio comedy in recent memory. Is this the latest iteration of that most dreaded style of humor, the gay-panic joke? Not really; the scene is about James' specific desperation, his fear of uncharted waters, and, believe it or not, his can-do spirit.
After breaking out with stand-up specials, Hart has so far mostly played the ringer in ensemble films (About Last Night, the Think Like A Man series). But his film career has been on a huge upswing, with last year's buddy comedy Ride Along a smash. He brings a fresh manic presence that helps enliven Ferrell, who's been making variations on the same movie for his decade-plus of stardom. Get Hard largely sheds the situational absurdity of Ferrell's recent output like Anchorman 2 and Casa De Mi Padre, which were more about outrageous concepts than the comic potential of their star.
It's still ultimately a disposable work, but at least while it's going, it hits hard.