Theatrically released in the summer of 2017, Andrew Cohn’s heart-rending documentary “Night School” is a compassionately observed account of the onerous ordeal a group of underprivileged adults in Indianapolis weathers to obtain their GEDs. Cohn’s film is a stirring demonstration of the power of second chances.
“Girls Trip” director Malcolm D. Lee’s newest comedy, also called “Night School” and boasting a nearly identical premise, is similarly persuasive in its quest to preach the gospel of never giving up. The core distinction between these two effective approaches is that Lee’s uses laugh-our-loud gags in its delivery. Tonally different but thematically synced, the movies’ intentions are thoughtful.
2018’s “Night School” brings Kevin Hart back to high school as a grown man with unfinished business from his teenage past, not unlike his character in “Central Intelligence.” As Teddy, Hart is leaning onto the slightly maniacal and humorously vulnerable trope we’ve seen him execute for several years now. Still, that brand of stubborn masculinity with a soft center still has some brightness left in it.
Unable to thrive in the school system, Teddy dropped out of Piedmont High and supported himself through sales jobs. A born hustler, Teddy hides his learning disabilities under the false image of a self-made man. Engaged to the financially independent Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “Damsels in Distress”) and hoping to take over a BBQ-grill business, Teddy mistakenly thinks he has no use for academics.
Unforeseeable circumstances obliterate his job security, forcing Teddy to come to terms with the need for a GED as a conduit to prosperity or a least a better gig than dressing up as poultry to promote the faith-based fast-food chain Christian Chicken. Back at Piedmont, he encounters a minefield of unpleasant truths: Old frenemy Stewart (Taran Killam) is now the principal with principles, and ferociously chic teacher Carrie (an assured Tiffany Haddish) won’t stand for any shortcuts.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge how, in the year since Haddish’s breakout supporting turn in “Girls Trip,” she has unarguably conquered Hollywood: announcing the Oscar nominations, collecting major awards, and becoming an increasingly bankable star with each project she graces. Here’s hoping a solid lead is in store for her, because as unapologetically badass as she is in “Night School,” her Carrie remains a secondary role. Attitude meets vocation in Haddish’s take on a no-nonsense educator eager to help but not to spoon-feed.
Carrie’s tough-love lesson plan clashes with Teddy’s childish reluctance to put in sincere effort, and that unbalanced power dynamic prompts a satisfying amount of A+ cracks, even when they’re less than original. Uttering the minor expletive “bitch” has become a staple of most comedy flicks these days, but even for such a basic trick, charisma makes all the difference.
The sharpest lines and the strongest banter surface in the classroom scenes with Teddy’s nigh school classmates. They’re no “Community,” but the mundanely eccentric characters assembled here are collectively the film’s greatest component.
Mexican-American comedian Al Madrigal transforms into Luis, a Mexican immigrant yearning to become the next Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake after he first succeeds as a dental hygienist. Rolling over stereotypes and negative assumptions about Latinx people — including a seemingly oblivious use of a thick accent –Madrigal’s reinterpretation of them is honorable and no less funny.
Also answering the roll call are Romany Malco as Jaylen, who hates robots and considers himself to be woke; Mary Lynn Rajskub as the blessed yet sexually frustrated mom Theresa; and even Latino rapper Fat Joe portraying kind prison inmate Bobby who takes classes via conference call.
Although this cohort of more indelible performances can outshine Hart, Teddy remains the central figure with a defined emotional arc in which he realizes honesty and perseverance are more sustainable than deceit. Similar light-bulb moments occur in most Hart vehicles; nevertheless, those truisms are more than practical in “Night School,” since the moral of the tale is very much applicable to those folks trampled by personal battles in their search for self-improvement.
The generic score by David Newman is one of the film’s few glaring imperfections (only momentarily redeemed by the clever use of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”). For the most part, Lee seems to be chasing mere proficiency with his below-the-line choices. However, the effects team does bring “A Beautiful Mind”-style VFX to illustrate Teddy’s dyscalculia, a disorder causing difficulty with math-related learning. All in all, the picture is technically functional, with the exception of Haddish’s floating head infiltrating her student’s psyche, a cheesy visual choice.
Positively amusing, “Night School” assures Tiffany Haddish’s lift-off into comedic stardom, continues to sell Kevin Hart’s trademark persona and makes an outspoken case for supporting and encouraging individuals to accept their challenges and to work on moving forward. It’s not revolutionary, nor does it rally for policy change, but it earns a passing grade.