By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The on-screen teaming of two popular comedy icons who haven’t appeared together before sends our expectations soaring, especially when their chasmic height difference renders them a walking sight gag.
If only Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart got smoother support from their dreadful script in Get Hard.
This goin’-to-prison buddy comedy can’t help but bring memories of the hearty laughs generated by the pairing of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy, or Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, in the 1980s.
But Get Hard, while delivering a few undeniably funny moments, tries so hard to push the political-incorrectness envelope that it becomes more offensive than funny far too often.
Ferrell plays James King, a millionaire hedge fund manager who, on the eve of his wedding to his boss’ (Craig T. Nelson) daughter (Alison Brie), is arrested and then convicted of securities fraud and embezzlement, for which he’s sentenced to ten years in the maximum-security prison at San Quentin.
Fearing rape, he calls on the guy he employs to wash his cars for help in preparing for prison.
That guy is Darnell Lewis, played by Hart, whom King assumes — for no other reason than that Lewis is black — has done time. He hasn’t, but the law-abiding family man goes along with it and becomes King’s “prison coach” for the money, which he hopes to use to open his own car wash and put a down payment on a house for his wife and daughter.
Let the training set piece begin!
Debuting director Etan Cohen, who wrote the scripts for Tropic Thunder and Men in Black 3, apparently gave his two gifted leads ample opportunity to improvise. And they certainly needed to, given the limitations of the screenplay.
But there’s so much shaky ground for Ferrell and Hart to make up for — what seems an obsession with prison rape might be an apt place to start — that the improvisatory style smacks of desperation, which doesn’t exactly make the ground fertile for winning comedy.
Performers as naturally funny as Ferrell and Hart, with the former’s teary, galumphing cluelessness contrasted with the latter’s inspired chatterbox energy, can generate chuckles without even trying. But they’re swimming upstream, and you can tell they know that they have to find a way to deliver in spite of the script rather than because of it.
When they’re funny, they’re funny. But Get Hard is astonishingly unfunny for long stretches and is occasionally embarrassing.
Whether the script (by Jay Martel, Ian Roberts and director Cohen, based on a story by Martel, Roberts, and frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay) is satirizing racial and sexual stereotypes or actually reinforcing them is a legitimate area of concern here, a potential debate that tucks right into our ongoing national dialogue.
That said, the pairing of Ferrell and Hart in another, more assured vehicle would still be something to look forward to.
So we’ll incarcerate 2 stars out of 4. With all that talent in front of the camera and obvious problems behind it, Get Hard gets the occasional laugh, but isn’t always easy to take.