The new Will Ferrell–Kevin Hart comedy Get Hard is designed to provoke you, and maybe even piss you off a little. Does it cross the line into actual racism, and/or homophobia, as some contend? Maybe. Probably. Everybody’s threshold for offense is different, and the movie flaunts its “edge” like it’s going out of style. But the real problem is that Get Hard’s very idea of edge is itself pretty stale. It feels like a bunch of off-color jokes the filmmakers have been trying to tell for years, and they’ve crammed them all into one film — with tiresome results.
The setup is simple and symmetrical: James King (Ferrell), a soft, smug finance-industry hotshot, is arrested for fraud and embezzlement on the eve of his engagement party — right in the middle of a private concert by John Mayer. (The very game Mayer is hilarious in his cameo, and when John Mayer is the best thing in your movie, you worry.) On the other edge of town, Darnell Lewis (Hart), the fast-talking and hardworking owner of a small luxury-car-cleaning service, is desperately trying to get a mortgage to buy a home in a better neighborhood so his young daughter doesn’t have to go to a shitty and dangerous school where every morning the kids glumly line up to get jammed through a metal detector. Darnell needs $30,000 for the down payment on the home, but nobody will give him a loan. (“Aren’t you supposed to be a predatory lender? Prey on me! You’re a lion, I’m a gazelle!” he pleads to the bank.) When James (whom we know is probably innocent) becomes the spiritual fall guy for all of the financial industry’s misdeeds and gets ten years in maximum-security prison, he goes to Darnell for lessons on how to survive doing hard time. Darnell knows nothing about prison and is offended that James would even think he does — but the rich man offers him the $30,000 he needs for that mortgage, so away we go.
The juxtaposition between the two characters is initially telling, and poignant: While Darnell is trying to get away from his tough surroundings, James’s life is filled with faux manifestations of strength and machismo: He has capoeira class every day, with everyone indulging his ego; he stretches his pasty, doughy, naked body at the window every morning while his poor gardener works right outside; his gold-digging fiancée (Alison Brie) pretends to love his manliness and talks dirty to him; “We’re on a boat, bitch!” reads a T-shirt from one of his company retreats. Darnell, meanwhile, seeks the soft comfort of his tough, take-no-prisoners wife Rita, played by a terrific Edwina Findley Dickerson. He works like a dog and makes next to nothing while James makes millions with one trade over the phone and then pats himself on the back for all his hard labor.
At first, you wonder if maybe Get Hard is going in a Trading Places direction — not so much because these two characters with very different lives might switch, but because of the fun the film has playing them off one another. The two leads complement each other nicely, too. Farrell has his typical overgrown, bumbling, Foghorn Leghorn–like beefiness, and Hart brings a spark-plug, Speedy Gonzalez charisma; I wouldn’t mind seeing them reunite for a better film.
Alas, Get Hard eventually becomes just one big prison-rape joke, repeated ad nauseam in every conceivable permutation. While Darnell attempts to teach James how to act (and be) tough, it’s all at the service of keeping him from becoming someone’s “bitch” — not exactly fresh comic ground. The film does cross the line when, convinced he can’t teach James to protect himself, Darnell gives up and takes him to a gay bar so he can “learn to suck dick.” Obviously, the conflation of homosexuality with prison rape is downright psychotic, and partly positing this as a sign of Darnell’s own cluelessness doesn’t help matters much. Similarly, the fact that Darnell and his family seem to be the only black characters in this world who aren’t criminals is discomfiting. It’s not that the film needs to sprinkle in some token characters, but when the film’s worldview actually seems to confirm James’s deranged assumption that all black people must know a lot about crime and prison, that’s a problem.
But offense can be a valuable comic tool. From Blazing Saddles to Freddy Got Fingered to Borat to Bad Santa, plenty of films have found real laughs by crossing uncrossable lines. Get Hard wants to be one of those films, and it comes from people who understand that genre of comedy — two of the writers, Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, are Key & Peele veterans, and director and co-writer Etan Cohen co-wrote Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy. But Get Hard isn’t one of those films, because it has no real spirit of comic invention; it offends us, but it doesn’t do it to get unexpected, uncomfortable laughs. They’re the same dumb jokes you’ve heard a million times before, gussied up in the guise of social commentary. The cringe is not worth the chuckle, in this case.