Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish’s new Comedy Gets a Passing Grade
DIRECTED BY MALCOLM D. LEE/2018
Kevin Hart is growing up! His latest comedy, Night School, is still a showcase of his style of comedy, so fans won’t be disappointed. He works a little harder, though, to ground this character in something more recognizable to the real world. While the film itself is a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly, one thing we can see is that Kevin Hart isn’t simply trying to develop a character that is loud and over-the-top, playing for laughs only. In Night School, we see him crafting a character that is likable as well. This shows some definite growth for the comedian who often, without the right script to reign him in, can find himself in Chris Tucker-land, often hitting the same note no matter what any particular role calls for. In Night School, he finally has a character one can empathize with, and who has an actual narrative arc with demonstrable growth.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, who hit the ground running with his debut The Best Man in 1999 (which spawned a sequel, The Best Man Holiday in 2013, with a third installment on the way), guides this film into a presentable final product despite there being six writers (Kevin Hart, Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, Matthew Kellard, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg). There is nothing groundbreaking here in terms of plot and structure, and some of the laughs hit the same usual beats of crass bathroom humor (putting pubic hair on food to get a free meal), to racial and sexually-related jabs that pop up in every comedy these days….especially a Kevin Hart comedy.
Teddy Walker (Hart) is a successful high-school drop out who spends his time as the best salesman at a BBQ Grill retail store. He drives a Porsche, dresses nice, and is dating a beautiful and successful businesswoman named Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke- 24, CHIPs). He has just been told that his boss plans on giving him the entire business when he retires. His life seems to be #Blessed until it all literally goes up in flames.
Without his BBQ Grill sales job, Teddy must continue to front his very successful facade to his now-finance, thinking that she is so far out of his league that she’d dump him if she knew he was a high school dropout with no job. When his best friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz- Parks and Recreation, This is Where I Leave You) says he could get him a job at his financial planning firm as long as Teddy gets his G.E.D., Teddy heads down to the local high school to sign up, only to find that the principal of the school is his former high school class mate, Stewart (Taran Killam- 12 Years a Slave), with a vendetta against Teddy, and the night school teacher, Carrie (Tiffany Haddish- Girls Trip, The Oath), who isn’t someone who will let him take his signature shortcuts through life.
The supporting cast ensemble that make up Teddy’s fellow night school attenders include Mary Lynn Rajskub (24, Safety Not Guaranteed, Wilson), Anne Winters (13 Reasons Why), Rob Riggle (The Hangover, Midnight Sun), Romany Malco (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Last Vegas), Al Madrigal (Snatched), and Jacob Batalon (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
It is this supporting cast that carries enough of the burden, along with Ms. Haddish, so that the entire movie doesn’t rest on the shoulders of Mr. Hart. I’ve found that Kevin Hart actually does better when he is a part of an ensemble, or even a good comedy duo, that allows him the freedom to do his thing, but that can also reign him in as well. Such restraint can ground the story just enough to keep him from being too outlandish. Examples include, surprisingly, his work in Grudge Match opposite Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro; About Last Night; and even his work with Dwayne Johnson in Central Intelligence and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, or with Ice Cube in the Ride Along series.
While Night School doesn’t re-invent the comedy formula, its supporting cast, and Kevin Hart’s creation of a grounded, and sympathetic character that we can understand and cheer for, helping this film to earn a grade good enough to at least pass. It has a pro-education message, which is important, as it even tries to help reinforce the notion that students with learning difficulties can overcome whatever obstacle is in their way. It shouts the message that all students have to be willing, however, to do the work without trying to take a shortcut.
Night School captures the young mindset of today’s teens perfectly when one teen dropout, tells the older adults who are enrolled that after watching how bad they’ve messed up their lives, she knows she can do anything and is going to get her degree, and even enroll in college! Oh, if this film could only have that same level of inspiration, but honestly this isn’t a film anyone expects that much out of.
There is enough caricature spread throughout the film to take jabs at all types of people in our society, especially as it relates to the gap between the young generation and the older ones, and the way it gets some light-hearted digs in about race. People like me who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s will recognize Stewart, the suburban-raised white principal who carries around a bat banging it on lockers, at what looks like a most affluent school because he was inspired by Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Principal Joe Clark in the film Lean on Me, even though he is missing the point entirely. Keith David and Donna Biscoe, as Teddy’s parents, get their hilarious jabs in as well.
So, expect Night School to bring in the Kevin Hart faithful, but maybe a few that aren’t. What they’ll find is a few laughs, a nice message, and a Kevin Hart performance that shows some growth from his previous films. It won’t always demonstrate the best work out there, and it might try to take a few shortcuts like its main character. They say you hit what you aim for, and this is certainly true with Night School, but they aim high enough, and as a result, it is enough to get a passing grade.