If there’s any system in America that deserves to be taken down by the sword of comedic insight, it’s the prison system. America, land of the free, boasts the highest number of citizens incarcerated in the developed world, and that number is growing all the time. With a system as blood-thirsty as the American quest for “justice” there’s bound to be more than a few points of interest an astute pupil of comedy can poke at—for purposes of thought, of discussion, of outrage. Get Hard, the latest comedy starring Will Ferrell, attempts to do all of these things, but unfortunately, despite a solid premise and decent cast, it never manages to coalesce beyond the basest of the base to become something poignant and worthwhile.
The set up is simple: Will Ferrell plays James King, millionaire up and comer at a powerful brokerage firm with seemingly everything going his way. He’s being made partner by his boss (Craig T. Nelson) in addition to marrying the boss’s sexy daughter (Community’s Allison Brie) and has the next few years mapped out to ensure optimum success. This all comes crashing down when an SEC investigation finds him guilty of defrauding investors and he’s put on trial. Given a stiff, decade long sentence, King attempts to “get hard” for prison by hiring Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) to train him for the life. Of course, Darnell has never been to prison, but King doesn’t realize that because Darnell is black. Cue the antics, because they’re about to ensue.
Get Hard is the first directorial effort from screenwriter Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy). Despite having all of the right ingredients for an intelligent, well-thought out comedy, Cohen plays it safe. Sure, there are some moments of boundary pushing raunchiness—like Ferrell trying to will himself to give a stranger a blowjob—but the script never evolves beyond that. What could have been an amazing opportunity to poke fun at the 1%, the income divide, race relations, and the justice system becomes, instead, a series of wacky shenanigans and gross out humor that we’ve all seen before.
And, to be sure, the film is kind of funny. Hart especially shows his chops with his portrayal of Lewis and he riffs well with Ferrell. The chemistry shared between the two stars was on par with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and I would love to see more movies with these two in the lead. The strengths and weaknesses of each are played to and covered by the other and their banter is often pretty hilarious.
Still, it felt a shame that their talent and this premise was wasted on this movie. Get Hard isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just a movie that never quite manages to live up to its potential. The jokes are the same jokes we’ve seen a thousand times—a white man thinks he’s being attacked because he sees a black man; a man doesn’t want to be raped in prison; hardened gangsters become enamored with the world of high powered trading. It’s all very familiar—and that’s the problem.
I suppose there’s something to be said as to why the same jokes about race and race relations are being made today as they were 30, 40, or even 50 years ago. It was sort of interesting to ponder the bigger meaning behind this phenomenon and I could go off on a tangent about what this means for the culture as a whole. But this is not a movie that begs to be intellectualized in any form or fashion. While a smart comedy would have played to this angle, forcing us to take a look at ourselves and our society and ask the big questions, this movie is content to scratch the surface before distracting you with dick jokes and prison humor.
To that end, I suppose Get Hard does those things well. I laughed more than a few times and, indeed, there are some genuinely hilarious parts. But the hilarity never does anything to make you think or make you look beyond the superficial. Get Hard has all of the makings of a smart and witty satire, but it takes more than ingredients to make a special meal. Instead of a gourmet dinner that you’ll remember for years to come, you’re given a bag of fast food and sent along your way. Like any meal you can order from a value menu, it might fill you up and satisfy you for a while, but you’re not going to think about it immediately after consuming it. And frankly, that’s too bad.
Get Hard is in theaters today.