In Get Hard, an affluent financial trader, James King (Will Ferrell) finds his seemingly perfect world turned upside down when he is accused of fraud. Though he pleads innocence, he is unable to make his case in a justice system now viewing corporate types as the enemy. He is sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, a maximum security prison in which James wouldn’t last one day in. Out of options and desperate to survive his ten year sentence, James turns to the only man he knows who has been in prison, Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart).
Darnell agrees to teach James how to “get hard” before his sentence in 30 days, in exchange for $30,000. What’s the catch? Darnell knows as little about prison as James does.
Etan Cohen makes his directorial debut with Get Hard. Previously credited for working on the scripts for Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy, Cohen steps into the director’s chair with relative ease, doing an admirable job. The film (mostly) sustains a great pace and manages to find its rhythm once Ferrell and Hart begin interacting and playing off one another. The film’s greatest strength is the chemistry that these two have together. Ferrell plays the naïve and soft-spoken James King, creating a character that is equal amount despicable and sympathetic – a role he has perfected (Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, etc.). Hart is equally equipped, playing Darnell mostly as the straight-man, but often giving way to bouts of manic energy he’s known for.
The film’s other strength is its pacing. The best bits in the movie come from the “prison training” sequences where Darnell teaches King how to survive, and luckily that is where the bulk of the film focuses. The constant ticking away of the days until James’ sentence is visually displayed with a large font, breaking up the different scenes. This allows the film to move on from one gag to the next with ease and maximum effect for laughs.
Unfortunately, Get Hard stumbles out of the gate, with a painfully unfunny first act, focusing on the two drastically different lives of the two main characters, James and Darnell. The film comes to life when Hart and Ferrell are on screen together, and the lack of that spark is felt whenever the two are separated.
Beyond the opening lacking enough comedy to move it forward, the film reinforces several tired stereotypes. James King, our proxy for the upper class, is embodied by every single, obvious stereotype you could think of. He has a luxurious and spacious mansion that still isn’t grand enough to raise a family in, a money-loving wife-to-be in Alissa (Allison Brie), and a bevy of “white people” hobbies, like Capoeira, a combination of martial arts and dance – which is as effective and as ridiculous as it sounds (especially when practiced by Ferrell).
On the other side of the class spectrum is Darnell, a struggling, middle class, family man who, while remaining well-intentioned, upbeat and optimistic can never seem to catch a break. His daughter is attending a run-down school in the very worst area of town. This bothers Darnell, being kept down by society and other factors. Although he is shown to have a fantastic work ethic and is nothing short of an exemplary citizen, he is unable to receive a loan from the bank to pursue his dreams and provide a better life for his family. Times are tough, I guess. That seems to be the only explanation given.
The film struggles to say anything new about these differences between classes, and sadly, never really finds a fresh viewpoint on the subject. And as thinly written as James and Darnell are, they seem like fully-fleshed, three-dimensional characters compared to the supporting cast.
Alissa, the rich, posh socialite engaged to James, is saddled with lazy, paper-thin writing. Alissa is played with such snobbishness and pomposity that it becomes offensively unfunny. It’s clear that Alison Brie was trying to do something over-the-top with her humorless character, but it proves to be the wrong choice. Everything about her character feels miscalculated, and comes across as big and unfunny as a rejected Saturday Night Live caricature.
The same criticisms can be lobbed at the other supporting characters. Craig T. Nelson makes a cameo here as Martin, Alison’s father and James’ superior, who is as one-dimensional as the former. As soon as the first line of dialogue is delivered by these two, it should be certain what their motives and character arcs are. There are no surprises with these two or the last act’s investigation into who framed James, leaving the entire story feeling needless and uninvolving.
More troubling is the casting of Darnell’s cousin, Russell (T.I. Harris), and the supporting cast around him. Russell is Darnell’s source for information about what prison life actually entails. While T.I. does manage to get some laughs, it is unfortunate that he and his gang are the only other portrayals (besides Darnell) of their race. The film, whether intentionally or not, misguidedly sets up two possible outcomes for a black man: clichéd gangster or a “Theo Huxtable” type.
Controversy has surrounded the film for its nonchalant attitude towards prison rape…and those critics are not wrong. The film is obsessed with rape and genital jokes, and goes out of its way to offend as many viewers as it possibly can. I can often find the humor in offensive comedy, I just want more from it. Get Hard isn’t as offensive as it is disappointing, repeating the same jokes to diminishing effect.
It would be easy to write off Get Hard as being racist and homophobic, but that would be unfair. I do feel that the film is careless in its portrayal of race, class and homosexuality, but it’s never mean-spirited or hostile towards these groups. It tries to have fun at the expense of everyone involved. Get Hard is simplistic in its views, but it’s also not the foul, hateful film critics are rushing to label it as.
Get Hard is undeniably crass and juvenile, and what demands to be addressed as its biggest sin is laziness. While I laughed quite a bit during its runtime, thanks to Ferrell and Hart’s energetic chemistry and improvisational skills, the script winds up being woefully underwritten and perhaps too insensitive. It’s a good comedy that aims to dissect and skewer several hot-button topics, but the lame satire and tired viewpoints keep it from being the great comedy it so desperately strives to be.
The bottom line is this: Get Hard is entertaining and merits a watch if you are not the easily offended type. It moves along quickly enough that it will please fans of Ferrell or Hart, but lacks any true wit or deeper insight into the issues it discusses to merit repeat viewings or further thought.