You can practically see the baton that passes between Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in the blundering bromance “Get Hard,” from last decade’s bro-comedy king to this one’s. The question is whether that baton is something anyone should have or want in the first place.
The buddy comedy arrives freighted with accusations of racism and homophobia after its world premiere at SXSW last week, with some decrying its recycling of racial stereotypes and gay panic — staples of dude-driven farces since Ferrell’s breakthrough years on “SNL.”
But there’s a daring comedy somewhere inside writer Etan Cohen’s (“Tropic Thunder”) directorial debut, which simultaneously trivializes and solemnizes the prospect of prison rape. Staring down the barrel of a 10-year prison sentence for accounting shenanigans, Ferrell’s Bel Air buffoon James hires his car washer, Hart’s Darnell — who’s never been to prison, but is more than willing to take this rich clown’s money — as his prison-prep instructor.
For most of the film, Cohen and his team of screenwriters create a comedy that doesn’t punch down at victims, but finds inspiration in James’ fear of sexual assault in the pen, which may or may not be rooted in reality. (The millionaire’s only familiarity with clink life comes from violent dramas.) It’s a premise that must recognize rape’s true awfulness to work — an acknowledgement that already renders most of “Get Hard” slightly more enlightened than the smug, throwaway line about how convicts meet true justice when they drop the soap.
Frightened as it is of hyper-masculine men, Cohen’s comedy is really about making a man manlier. James is as soft as a down pillow when we first meet him, crying his eyes out in an uncomfortable close-up. He wakes up doing yoga poses and fails to stand up to his grasping fiancée (Alison Brie) when she plans an addition to the blueprints of their already hulking manor.
James can make his boss/future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) $28 million in a day, but seems to take no joy in sucking up money from the stock market; he simply looks constipated after a day at the office. With his wiry hair and untidily strewn teeth, Ferrell fails to convince as a Reagan-worshipping Wall Street shark — an emblem of the rarefied income bracket broadly satirized by the comedy in the first act.
More satisfying are the ways “Get Hard” lampoons James’ racial assumptions. The sheltered investor is more than a little disappointed when he learns there’s nothing especially “black” or thuggish about Darnell’s handshake. “Oh, regular,” he sighs.
Darnell is no hunk of toughened meat himself, but he goes along with James’ statistical “deduction” that he’s been incarcerated — one in three black men will serve time in jail, the millionaire shrugs — because he’s eager to move his daughter out of their “gangbanger school district” in South Central. Part of the joke is that Darnell is so square he’s called a “Cliff Huxtable-looking motherf-cker” by his criminal cousin Russell (rapper T.I.), but James can’t tell the difference between this loving family man and Idi Amin.
Given his own lack of knowledge about life on the inside, Darnell cobbles together a haphazard readiness plan for his new client, which is how James ends up in some hilarious scenarios: bench-pressing his much shorter convict coach, grudgingly starting fights with strangers for practice and pooping in a bucket in his own home, which he turns into a mock prison run by his gleeful domestics.
It’s also how Darnell brings James to a brunch bistro that doubles as a hook-up hangout in the film’s ickiest scene. Scared by his wife’s (Edwina Findley Dickerson) warnings that James might not survive San Quentin, Darnell convinces James to perform fellatio as a rehearsal for the real thing. In context, it makes sense that the Ferrell would cringe and groan and squirm in front of a fake penis (worn by comedian Matt Walsh) — this is one self-imposed indignity too many — but in a larger cultural context of discomfort in comedy about male-on-male sexuality, the scene can also be read as wincingly homophobic.
With “Get Hard,” Cohen repeatedly places himself and his performers on a tight rope between the fire and the frying pan. The comedy attempts to make us laugh at Ferrell’s one-percenter while sympathizing with his prison plight; to exploit James’ terror at the possibility of prison rape while keeping the tone pretty breezy; and to send up the millionaire’s stereotyping of black people while trafficking in those very same racial caricatures. (The third act finds Russell and his fellow gangsters meeting James, whom they immediately dub “Mayo.”) It’s a multiple balancing act that Cohen doesn’t have the grace, wit or sensitivity to pull off.
On top of all that, there’s a plodding investigation storyline to get through, in which James discovers who framed him for the embezzlement that he didn’t commit. (It’s who you’d suspect from the first 10 minutes of the movie.) Ferrell and Hart don’t bring anything that we haven’t seen from them before, but they create a bouncy, playfully defiant rapport. It’s promising enough that you wish they could have made a movie in which they’re just making us laugh, instead of leaving us wondering how every third scene could be made less offensive.