Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

My patience with Will Ferrell is starting to wear thin. While I wouldn’t call him a stellar performer, he certainly has some acting range. So when he was once again cast as an idiot man-child with poor emotional and impulse control who learns a contrived lesson about maturity in a comedic context (e.g., “Talladega Nights,” “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”) I simply found that the novelty has finally worn off. I am pretty sure that there’s a Google Doc floating around Hollywood that just has a few fill-in-the-blank spaces for any C-grade Will Ferrell comedy, like a less-funny version of Mad Libs for lazy hack screenwriters and producers.

Ferrell is joined by Kevin Hart, a man who people insist is funny but in whom I see no appeal, in a comedy that pulls off one of the worst bait-and-switches I’ve seen in cinema. Now, I went into the theater expecting a dumbed-down comedy because of the aforementioned reasons, but a little twig of hope sprouted within my brain in the opening scenes. The film opens with a highlight of the harsh juxtaposition between the haves and have-nots in Los Angeles, with scenes of Ferrell’s rich, aloof character enjoying the high life, intercut with scenes of Hart struggling to make ends meet in a society that oftentimes sees poor minorities as throwaway people. There’s also a few strong hints dropped in the opening scenes that the movie may try to tackle issues of race in a comedic reimagining of “Trading Places.” Then Ferrell rubbed his ass cheeks against a plate-glass door and I realized that my initial suspicions were correct.

The plot concerns James King (Ferrell) a hedge-fund manager who is sentenced to maximum-security prison and must turn to Darnell Lewis (Hart) to learn how to survive behind bars. There is a subplot about him clearing his name and learning to be less of a racist, but most of the screen time is dedicated to talking about prison rape. Eventually everything works out in the end and James and Darnell become the best of friends. While showing some narrative coherence, there is a definite lack of focus on antagonists.

For a film that had the tools to be so much more, “Get Hard” forgoes a chance to explore oftentimes painful issues in a comedic light in lieu of going for the low-hanging fruit of comedy. 90 percent of the humor centers around swearing, racial or cultural stereotypes and Kevin Hart being short. If anything, the film is less low-hanging fruit and more fruit that has fallen off of the tree and started to partially rot. While there are a few genuinely intelligent and original bits of humor intercut among all the white noise, these moments of clarity were few and far between, like the gasps of air a drowning man is able to take in before the waves swallow him completely. There may have been one or two people working on the script who had to share their office with a bunch of lazy, jaded filmmakers. Occasionally, these two were able to sneak in a few bits of adept humor, but every time they tried to make a sizable contribution they were locked in a closet to think about what they had done.

The oftentimes cruel nature of capitalist society could have served perfectly well in the story, but the filmmakers felt the need to crowbar in a generic hitman character and a white supremacist gang, and the third act devolves from a comedy to a poorly executed comedic action movie (something I’ve taken to calling “‘Pineapple Express’ Syndrome”). Also, every character that isn’t Ferrell or Hart is a stereotype: Hart’s wife is a sassy black woman, Ferrell’s future father-in-law is generic evil businessman, Hart’s family are gangsters, Ferrell’s fiancee is a gold-digger and all of the gay characters in the film are effeminate. In a film that derives some of its comedy from deconstructing stereotypes, relying on them in the script is disingenuous.

While I have spent most of this review rightfully complaining about “Get Hard,” there are some canny moments that deserve some merit. There are a few clever bits of dialogue, Ferrell and Hart have decent chemistry and Ferrell’s character actually has an arc, which is something that has sadly become more exception than rule in mainstream cinema. In addition, the cleaning staff at Ferrell’s mansion serves as a sort of Greek chorus, breaking the fourth wall and sardonically commenting on the major plot points in the film. I suppose some fresh-faced screenwriter came up with this before being locked in the naughty box for people who break the mold.

While certainly more drudgery than diversion, “Get Hard” did make me laugh in spite of myself more than I expected, and I find it hard to judge it too harshly in retrospect. Part of that may be because of its endearingly inept charm, or because I can’t seem to recall anything specific from the film less than 24 hours after I watched it. While there are worse comedies, the lack of any significantly funny or memorable moment is more detrimental than any lazy writing or recycled humor.  While you may consider viewing it if you have time to kill and need a vacuous distraction, in the end “Get Hard” will leave you flaccid.

Rating: 1.5 stars