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If you love rape jokes, “Get Hard” is your movie.
This film about a car wash manager, Darnell (Kevin Hart), who helps a convicted hedge fund manager prepare for a stint in maximum security prison is driven by fear of non-consensual buggery, primarily at the hands of looming African-American prisoners with deep voices. Darnell is assisting the hedge fund manager in getting ready for his sentence. The plot revolves around the irrational fear of a weak-willed white man that he will be “turned out” by black men and made to feel like a “bitch,” to use a word that is used by both of these characters on a fairly consistent basis. The hedge fund manager is depicted in the script as “training” for prison by putting on weight, learning to carry himself with more confidence, fighting, and talking “black.” Anyone who has seen the poster that is displayed on the subway and bus will not be surprised by any of this information. On the poster, the hedge fund manager, James, is shown seated with his face frozen in a not-so-secretly terrified fake scowl, and the car wash owner, Darnell, is shown standing behind James and braiding his hair into cornrows.
Before we continue, I just want to make it clear that there is nothing about this material that is inherently objectionable. To paraphrase the name of an album that Steve Martin released, “Comedy Isn’t Pretty,” There are few things that are more antithetical to the concept of art, not to mention more unfunny and boring, than a comedy that is primarily concerned with proving how sensitive it is. This is especially true when combined with the fact that it is boring. It is possible for comedy to function in a variety of different modes, and it is possible for it to be funny, provocative, and even brilliantly incisive. The phrase “tear the lid off the id and watch the razor-toothed fishies swim around” refers to one of these modes.
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It just so happens that this is the mode that some of the best R-rated comedies, such as “Blazing Saddles,” “Stir Crazy,” “Office Space,” “Friday,” Roberto Benigni’s “Monster,” and “Let’s Go to Prison,” worked in. The latter film is very similar to the former, but it is by far the funnier of the two. (“Would you like some Merlot?” The inmate of Chi McBride asks his “Let’s Go to Prison” lover about their relationship. “I made it while I was using the restroom.”) The song “Get Hard” also attempts to operate in this mode when it was written. The world depicted in the movie is not one in which everything is perfect; rather, it is an exaggerated version of the world in which we actually live. This world is full of many different types of bigotry, including racism, homophobia, sexism, and a whole host of other -ics and -ists. Additionally, it is motivated by a need for alpha male dominance, which is manifested in the form of economic violence as well as rapes committed in prisons. The screenplay for “Get Hard” contains a fantastic but troubling germ of an idea: a rich, corrupt white man is terrified that members of the American underclass will literally rape him, just as his friends have been economically raping them for generations. This is because his friends have been economically raping them for generations.
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Cohen is free to pursue any avenue of inquiry. Too bad his skills are lacking. The resume of the first-time director includes co-writing Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder,” which garnered laughs from a white actor (Robert Downey Jr.) in blackface, a Gentile actor (Tom Cruise) playing an outrageously greedy and grotesque Jewish agent, and a monologue about how Hollywood movie stars play characters with Down syndrome to prove their versatility in the industry (“never go full retard”). The problem that “Thunder” had was the same problem that “Get Hard” had, which was that it tried to have its politically incorrect cake and eat it, too: both Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise’s characters were minstrel show doodles enclosed by air quotes. However, there were brief but bitingly insightful passages, and the film never entirely lost sight of the fact that its primary target of opportunity was the self-satisfied ignorance of Hollywood’s upper crust. Cohen’s “Get Hard” casts a paranoia-inducing net that is sufficiently wide to catch both Mexican-American gangbangers and white supremacists (showcased in a set-piece that seems modeled on the classic bit in “48 HRS” where Eddie Murphy intimidates a bar full of rednecks). And its contempt for the wealthy swells has a peculiar but appealing kind of outmoded Bowery Boys populism: James’s people aren’t just wealthy, they’re movie-wealthy, hanging out on yachts and golf courses and in the dining rooms of country clubs, and attending banquets where string quartets are interrupted by champagne toasts.
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Regrettably, “Get Hard” does not come close to matching the quality of the stronger parts in “Tropic Thunder.” It seems as though the director, who spent his formative years watching “Stir Crazy” on HBO, thought that the scene in which Richard Pryor taught Gene Wilder to walk and talk like a black man would be more effective if it lasted for 90 minutes rather than 90 seconds. The movie is not nearly as perceptive as it imagines itself to be. It is without a doubt not as astute as necessary to deal with content that is provocative or even explosive without coming off as cynical and opportunistic. It’s a conservative movie that tries to pass itself off as a liberal one by being provocative. The vast majority of the time, it acts as though it is boldly seeing through mindsets that it is actually just unveiling for the millionth time. It would like for us to believe that it is critiquing racism and cultural stereotypes, but this is mostly just a pose—a pretext to get laughs from Will Ferrell dressed in “street” clothes, babbling barely coherent slang, and apologizing for trying to appropriate other people’s cultures. (Few trends in the entertainment industry are as annoying as white “liberal” comedians being “ironically” bigoted in front of audiences while subtly telling them, “We all know nobody in this room is racist, so laugh it up!” )
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In one scene, Darnell gives up on teaching James to act tough and instead takes him to “the number one gay pickup spot” in Los Angeles so that James can learn to perform fellatio in the men’s room. The film is also casually homophobic. In addition to that, it is sexist. At least Darnell’s wife Rita (Edwina Findley) and daughter Makayla (Ariana Neal) come across as human beings rather than hateful parasites in the short amount of screen time they have. James’s fiancee, played by Alison Brie of “Community,” is a castrating harpy, and her counterpart on the underclass side of the fence, a young groupie who hangs with a street gang, fares no
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Both Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart have their shining moments: the former once again demonstrates his gift for surreal, improvised blurting, and the scene in which Hart acts out a hypothetical encounter between a Black inmate, a Latino inmate, and a gay hustler in a prison yard is as great as anything Richard Pryor has ever done. But these are brief respites in an otherwise tedious whole, and none of them are enough to shake the impression that “Get Hard” is trying to pull a fast one on its audience while simultaneously succeeding in doing so.