Do you like jokes about prison rape?
Well, if you do, then Get Hard is the movie for you.
Because when it comes down to it, that's what Get Hard is: An excuse to crack wise about how Will Ferrell's milquetoast investment banker will never make it through a San Quentin stint without being intimately violated.
And over again.
Ferrell plays James King, sentenced to prison for defrauding his financial clients. To survive his decade-long term, King hires Darnell (Philly's own Kevin Hart), a car-wash owner who King assumes has gone to prison, even though Darnell has never gotten even a parking ticket.
But Darnell needs the cash to buy a house for his family in a better neighborhood. So he agrees to teach King to "mad dog," "keister," and generally survive in an environment with which neither he nor his timid student has any experience.
The germ of an interesting idea in Get Hard is completely overshadowed by the onslaught of jokes meant to be boundary-pushing and edgy. Instead, the script - by Jay Martel, Upright Citizens Brigade's Ian Roberts, and director Etan Cohen - commits a sin worse than offense. The jokes are just too easy.
Cohen and crew want to make light of race and class disparities, and how these gaps in wealth and status invalidate the American dream, as in the credit sequence when the rich and the poor are juxtaposed against each other. Classic comedies - including the Philadelphia-set Trading Places - have expertly worked these ideas into the fabric of their concepts. But why go for insight when there are several prison-rape jokes yet to be made?
There is one odd positive note about Get Hard. Hart has spent most of his career playing the wacky funnyman character trading off his diminutive height and Napoleonic ego. Take his breakout Think Like a Man, where he was the stock comic relief to the romantic goings-on of his friends. Or Ride Along, where he played the fool to Ice Cube's straight man. Or even his role in his own BET sitcom, The Real Husbands of Hollywood. In each, he has made himself the butt of the joke.
But in Get Hard, just as in this year's The Wedding Ringer opposite Josh Gad, Hart gets a chance to be the more serious, suave figure. Despite his ostensibly higher station, Ferrell's James is a man-child whom Hart must guide for his own survival. Hart gets to be the audience-relation point, sharing with us the knowledge of his own scheme, rather than the guy we're supposed to laugh at. So we end up laughing at the rich white guy, rather than the hardworking black man.
It's a way for Hart to show a range that goes beyond the clown. Though Get Hard may try, and fail, at pushing boundaries, at least Hart is pushing his own.
Get Hard ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Etan Cohen. With Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Tip Harris, Craig T. Nelson, Allison Brie. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: R (pervasive crude and sexual content and language, some graphic nudity, drug material.)
Playing at: Area theaters.