The new comedy Get Hard basically revolves around three extended jokes. The first is racist: Hedge fund manager James King (Will Ferrell) assumes that car wash business owner named Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) has done time, solely because the guy's black. The second is about rape, threaded through with gay panic: James has been sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin and is so certain he'll "become someone's bitch" that he hires the actually squeaky-clean Darnell to toughen him up. The third is that Get Hard is in on the other two jokes, fully aware and confident that you know that the movie knows better, drawing the racially charged jokes out with a big ol' wink — Aren't we so bad?
Get Hard is the directorial debut of Etan Cohen, a screenwriter whose past credits include Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy, and who theoretically knows his boundary-pushing R-rated comedy. But his new film is so eager to offend and pleased with its own provocations that it hardly ever gets around to undermining the racism, homophobia, and sexism it so gleefully explores.
Instead, Get Hard, which opens in theaters on Mar. 27, is a feature-length exercise in hipster racism, joshingly having Ferrell dress up in garish camo and cheetah prints for a trip to Crenshaw, and then — whoops — having the gang members he's meeting all be drawn from every half-assed racial stereotype available. It's the film equivalent of Sean Penn announcing Alejandro Iñárritu's Oscar win by asking, "Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?" and then getting mad that people didn't like the "inside humor" with his pal.
But Get Hard isn't even worth getting mad about, because the most damning thing about the movie is that it's never anywhere near as edgy as it believes itself to be, its observations about race and class both on the nose and underwritten.
At the start of Get Hard, James is living in a Bel Air bubble of blissful 1-percenterdom in a marble-pillared mansion he shares with his grasping fiancée Alissa (Alison Brie, who deserves better than playing an evil set of boobs). A dozen miles away, Darnell is desperately trying to raise $30,000 so that he, his wife Rita (Edwina Findley Dickerson), and their daughter Makayla (Ariana Neal) can move to an area with better schools.
James is the top earner at a firm founded by his future father-in-law Martin (Craig T. Nelson), and Darnell runs a car wash business in the building's basement. The duo's first scene together begins with James thinking he's being mugged (until Darnell reminds him they know each other) and ends with him delivering a speech that could be lifted directly from the comments section on any article about government benefit programs. "I didn't get to the place I am today by asking for handouts," James intones. "I got here by hard work."
It's possible he did. But Get Hard shows James' existence to be one of coddled privilege — and he's oblivious to the eye-rolling and forced smiles of his house staff and his capoeira instructor. The movie also makes clear that James is still a fundamentally nice, ethical guy who gets framed for fraud because he's so trusting. Ferrell plays him as the exact intersection of two of his most popular past roles, Ron Burgundy and Buddy the elf, bloviating but naive. All of his ignorant assumptions about race are only because he doesn't know any better, which frees the movie up to have Darnell instruct him in, as he puts it, "every stereotype he already thinks I am."
Nothing better encapsulates the film's muddled sensibilities than the scene in which Darnell plays three different characters — one black, one Latino, and one gay — in order to show James what a prison yard is like. The laughs feel like they should be at the expense of James, but they're really about how funny the broad caricatures Hart is performing are. And, despite Hart's frantic charisma, they're not funny — they're cartoonish affirmations of all of the assumptions Get Hard is supposedly poking fun at.
The movie positions itself as a provocative comedy about race — starting with the poster art, which suggests a scene that never takes place in the movie in which Darnell is giving James cornrows — but its reality is so lazy, even in its attempted button-pushing. As Darnell attempts to help James by introducing him to his gangster cousin Russell (T.I.), for example, he takes James in and gives him the nickname "Mayo." And Get Hard's best laugh even comes from the repurposing of a joke that's been done before, in which Darnell borrows the plot of a movie (i.e., Boys in the Hood) to fill in the troubled past he doesn't actually have. James doesn't recognize the story and is rapt, but Rita and Makayla side-eye Darnell furiously as he elaborates on his youth with Doughboy and Ricky.
Where Get Hard does finally manage to offend is in its treatment of homosexuality, wholeheartedly giving in to the gay panic that R-rated bromances finally seemed to be getting over. Again and again, Get Hard ties the very real and understandble fear of rape in with a general sense that men having sex with men is hilariously icky. "Might as well call it 'San Fuckin'!" Darnell says, smacking his hands together to create a soundtrack as he describes a scenario in which James gets gang-banged behind bars.
Later, Darnell takes James to a gay brunch spot with the theory that James might as well get some practice giving head, ordering him to pick up a guy (Matt Walsh) and take him into a bathroom stall. The resulting scene stages the attempted blow job as unapologetic gross-out humor, complete with a couple quick shots of a flaccid penis. And the movie ends by confirming that it's the bad guys that'll end up getting raped in prison, throwing in an added tiresome bit based around the potential double meaning of "get hard."
It's all awful enough that you expect the movie to end with a title card that proclaims, "Don't worry, guys — we have gay friends and black friends. We're cool."