AUSTIN, Texas — "I'm always interested in the worst things people could possibly do," director Etan Cohen told BuzzFeed News of the principle upon which he’s essentially built his 20-year career.
He got his start writing for MTV's celebratory satire of extreme adolescent stupidity, Beavis and Butthead, in the mid-’90s. His first produced feature screenplay was for Mike Judge's 2006 movie Idiocracy, about a society 500 years in the future that is catastrophically dumbed down. He collaborated on the screenplay for 2008’s Tropic Thunder with Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux, helping give life to the character played by Robert Downey Jr. all the way to an Oscar nomination — a Method actor so egomaniacally committed to his craft that he plays a black soldier in blackface, and never breaks character.
All of those envelope-pushing projects have helped lead Cohen to Get Hard, his feature directing debut, which opens in theaters this Friday. It's a hard-R studio comedy starring Will Ferrell as James King, a man convicted of financial fraud who hires Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) — the only black man he knows, who washes his car in his office's garage — to teach him how to survive in prison. If that sounds deliberately provocative, that's because, according to Cohen, it is.
"We have a white guy who, because he's in his 1-percenter bubble, naturally assumes, statistically, the first black guy he meets must have gone to prison," Cohen said the day before Get Hard's premiere at the SXSW Film Festival last week. "I just love those moments of kind of expose our worst instincts and kind of put them in the forefront so we can kind of explode them."
And playing with that kind of combustive comedy requires the deft touch and nervy confidence of a bomb squad. If it works, like with Tropic Thunder or Mel Brooks' seminal comedy Blazing Saddles, the film can provoke a kind of incendiary laughter that burns away our anxieties surrounding prejudice and bigotry, making room for cathartic ridicule. If too many jokes go sour, however, the movie can blow up in all the wrong ways, deeply offending at least as many people as it aims to entertain, if not more. It’s a danger of which Cohen said he was keenly aware. "I think about it all the time, because, you know, there's a real risk, when you're doing satire, that you become the object of the thing that you're satirizing, right?" he said. "I think the litmus test of doing an edgy movie is to be able to take it just to the edge where people start to get offended. That's what makes it, I think, effective as a satire."
Get Hard certainly does push things right to the edge. (Warning: Some spoilers within.) The film opens with several scenes skewering James' white, straight, male privilege as he exercises it in deliberately offensive ways — he is ignorantly callous to his Latino (and largely silent) house staff, and he makes wild presumptions about black people always being criminals, which is what leads James to seek out Darnell's help in the first place. At the same time, the film plays with Darnell's self-image as an upwardly mobile family man with a cousin who actually is an ex-con (played by rapper and real-life ex-con T.I.) and the leader of a Los Angeles gang — including how the gang feels Darnell is as much of a homogenized sell-out as James is.
It is bracing to see a Hollywood studio release a movie that leans so hard into brandishing racial stereotypes as fodder for satire, but Cohen said Warner Bros. was always behind his approach. "One of the first conversations we had was, 'This is a movie about class. It's a movie to a degree about race,'" Cohen said. "And they said, 'That's absolutely what we want. Go for it.' … Look, I think two of biggest issues going on in America right now are income inequality and obviously [the] relationship between people of different colors and what we assume about each other." He smiles. "And you know, since Selma couldn't get them, we're going to do it."
At one point in the film, Darnell takes James to visit a White Power gang, and forces him to say the N-word — which James keeps comically flubbing, and ultimately cannot do. It’s an example of the film toeing the precarious line between using racism for comedy, and just being racist.
Given how profane and indelicate his comedies can be, Cohen, an observant Orthodox Jew, is disarmingly good natured and low-key in person. That temperament makes him uniquely suited for the process of finding that line between what's offensive and what isn't, since it’s generally also his process for finding what is funny and what isn't. For every joke in his scripts, Cohen — who is credited on Get Hard's screenplay with writing pair Jay Martel and Ian Roberts (Key and Peele) — regularly includes a handful of alternative jokes to try out on the day that range from subtle and quiet to wildly over-the-top. "I don't have to get it right the first time," he said. "It's OK to kind of explore and to mine for gold."
On Get Hard, the process for finding the right joke dovetailed completely with trying to avoid outright bigotry. "There were moments on the set where we would start to shoot and realize, This isn't the way we hoped it was going to play. This is maybe playing a little bit too combustive. Or a little bit too strong in a direction that we don't want to go,” he said. “And we'd rewrite it on set."
He specifically cited a scene in which Darnell explains to his wife, Rita, (Edwina Findley Dickerson of HBO's Treme) that his plan to help James is basically to embrace "every stereotype" James expects of him. "I think it shows the audience that we are aware that these are stereotypes, and we're not playing them for comedy," said Cohen. "We're playing them to undercut them." The original script, however, did not include that line. "Kevin and Edwina were running the scene, and all of a sudden, they said, 'You know, this just doesn't feel right to not have that sentiment in the movie because it's going to give people the wrong idea. It's sort of going to feel like we're going along for the ride. It's kind of unseemly in that way.' So I felt like, You know what? They're right. They've had that experience in a way that I can't understand." He chuckled, before noting, "One of the director's nightmares is rewriting a scene in front of 150 people [on a set]. But we sat on the couch, we rewrote it, we rehearsed it together, and I think it's one of the most important scenes in the movie."
If you did not know of Cohen’s work at all, you would be forgiven for thinking him to be too earnest for his own good. "I know I always felt like, 'I know I have the best intentions, but people who are watching the movie have no idea what the source of this stuff is,'" he said. "I really understand that like, people come in, and they're suspicious, like, Am I allowed to laugh at this? Is this movie laughing with me or at me? And I think part of our job is to convince people that we're on the right side of this issue, and we want to make a statement that I think everyone in the audience would affirm."
But Cohen may find that sentiment challenged most directly by the central conceit of Get Hard's plot, a running joke that is even suggested by the film's title: James' primal fear of being raped by a man in prison, a fear Darnell encourages and reinforces throughout the film, at one point simulating anal sex by repeatedly smacking his fist against his palm. Already, reviews of the film have singled out this particular strain of comedy for scorn. "When we talk about homophobia, that's exactly what this is," wrote Drew McWeeny for HitFix. "It whips itself up into a furious gay panic," wrote Drew Taylor for The Playlist. And the headline for the review in The Guardian exclaimed "Will Ferrel continues the tradition of gay panic comedies."
Cohen sees his film differently. "The movie's certainly not homophobic at all," he said, "but when you push people into a fear of prison culture, obviously, everyone's afraid of that. … I think what people have to know about Kevin's character is that Darnell has just as little idea about what prison is like as James does. Darnell is a guy who just watched Oz and Orange Is the New Black and stuff like that. And so, all of these tropes of prison life, like you are going to get raped … are just the things that Darnell has heard on TV."
To underline his point, Cohen noted that Darnell befriends a gay man named Chris (T.J. Jagodowski), even after Chris aggressively flirts with him. "Clearly they're very comfortable together, and Darnell is making jokes back," said Cohen. "I wanted to show that on a human level."
Darnell and Chris meet at a gay bar in West Hollywood, where Darnell has taken James to learn how to suck another man's dick, something James attempts to do in the bathroom, right as Chris first begins flirting with Darnell. Cohen said the scene was “an Adam McKay special,” referring to Ferrell's long-time creative partner who produced Get Hard with Ferrell. And Ferrell was totally game to take on the scene. At one point, the penis James is attempting to suck briefly shows up on screen — flaccid (erect penises basically never pass muster with the MPAA), and, it turns out, a prosthetic. "Will is a little bit drawn to things that no one else has the guts to do," said Cohen. "As he said, 'I would've done it with a realie.'"
Beyond critical derision, however, there is the potential outrage from the public that comes with so much knowing provocation. "I feel like there are certain people who already have their knives out for what they perceive the movie to be about," Cohen said. "And I have a lot of faith that if those people ever do go see the movie, they'll understand that that's not what we're doing."
But what if people do see it, and they are still offended?
Cohen blinked repeatedly, wide-eyed, seemingly never having confronted the question before. "Look, I would love to have that conversation. I think people have a right to express that," he said. "I think it's good to have uncomfortable conversations about this, especially if it's a thoughtful one. I would love to talk to people that way where it can really be about the content of the movie. And I think that's OK. I won't be surprised if people feel that way, and they have a right to, but I hope that it would be a conversation and not just an assumption about what we're doing."
A little more than 24 hours later, Cohen got his first opportunity to have that conversation. At the post-screening Q&A after Get Hard's premiere, an audience member reportedly told Cohen, "This film seems racist as fuck."
"That's not a question," Cohen reportedly said back. "I'm not done," said the questioner. "Soon you will be," said Cohen. The questioner appeared to back down, asking Cohen how nervous he was about presenting a movie that was "racist and hysterical at the same time?"
In response, Cohen also purportedly dialed back his defensiveness, echoing his thoughts from the day before: "We wanted to see just how far we could push it where we could be provocative and people would actually think about this stuff and think about the stereotypes, but not go too far where comedy doesn't deserve to go."
If Cohen wants to continue this kind of conversation with his audience, it will most likely manifest on Twitter. "In the Twitter universe, I am the smallest moon of the smallest planet," Cohen said, and yet, he also admitted that he’s already been fielding less-than-enthusiastic tweets about Get Hard.
“Someone wrote a funny thing where they said, ‘Boy, Idiocracy is really coming true 'cause look at this movie, Get Hard,’” said Cohen. “So I wrote back to him, ‘I honestly find this really funny because I worked on both movies. So did I predict myself?’ The guy wrote back [with] like, this string of racist epithets that I couldn't believe. And I just wrote back, ‘Thanks a lot. Hope you enjoyed the film.’”