The way it usually works with screen comedies is that they get a funny guy and a straight guy and pair them off, but “Get Hard” breaks the pattern. It matches up two comic actors and instead of clashing or canceling each other out, they bring in the best possible result: a comedy with twice the laughs.
“Get Hard” is funny — funny as in, if you’re eating something in the theater, be courteous and try not to spray the people in the seats in front of you. Will Farrell and Kevin Hart, comedians of vastly different sizes and speeds, somehow find their way onto each others’ rhythms, and the result is a memorable collaboration. As for the movie itself, it’s a laugh machine, nothing more than that, but that’s enough. All laugh machines should work this well.
The comic gimmick, the initial premise, is surefire going in, and then the filmmakers modify it and make it better: James (Will Ferrell), a white stock trader about to go to prison for white collar crime, hires Darnell (Kevin Hart), a black ex-con, to toughen him up so he can survive prison. But not exactly. Darnell isn’t really an ex-con. James is so racially oblivious he just assumes that he is, and Darnell needs the money and is willing to help.
The filmmakers make a series of smart decisions. James is, of course, desperate, which is ideal — extreme emotions are always good for comedy — but Darnell also cares. He’s not taking the money and running. Rather he sees this poor guy just days away from guaranteed annihilation, and he wants to do something to give him a fighting chance.
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Subtly, not in a way anyone would notice without looking for it, the movie switches back and forth, giving each comedian a chance to be the funny one and the other to lend support. For example, when Hart has an extended comic bit when he acts out what James should expect in the prison yard, Ferrell plays along. In another scene, James practices trash talk, so he’ll know how to tell people off while in the big house. But his variety of cursing is so bizarre that Darnell just sits there stunned, not knowing how to react.
Like most comedies these days, “Get Hard” is harsh and goes to the edge of the R rating with moments that are close to shocking. At one point, Darnell, despairing of being able to help James, decides that James’ only chance of surviving prison is to learn how to perform fellatio. So he takes him to a gay hangout, and what follows is a men’s room scene that goes about as far as a comedy can go.
The movie plays with racial and sexual stereotypes in a knowing way. The days of the PG comedy, in which the audience is ahead of the filmmakers, are over, at least for now. There’s a scene with white supremacists — James needs their protection before he goes to prison — and another in which James almost joins a black gang in Crenshaw.
Ferrell and Hart are good actors in addition to being funny, so neither is uncomfortable holding still while the other gets the laugh. They listen to each other. They play off each other. They ground everything they do in terms of character, and the laughs proceed from there. At times, it seems as though they might be improvising. There’s something vital in their creative chemistry, like they know they have to bring their best game, or is it that they’re just pleased to be working with an equal?
“Get Hard” is probably a one-off, in that the story makes it difficult to imagine a sequel. But someone ought to figure out a way for Hart and Ferrell to keep working together.