Kevin Hart is a bit of a hit-or-miss for me. He’s a brilliant comedian and performer, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. One minute he’s tearing up the stage on any of his stand-up specials, the next he’s a homicidal bunny. Some days he’s the busiest man in Hollywood, seemingly popping up in every successful film, and other days he’s shoved out of the way by security when he tries to join the Philadelphia Eagles on the field after winning the Super Bowl. He’s nothing if not unpredictable.
His latest outing, however, Night School, is probably one he’d like to have back. The film isn’t so much bad as it is aggressively mediocre, going for cheap laughs and unearned emotional weight rather than trying to truly develop its talented cast of characters into something both funny and poignant. There are hints at a better movie on the periphery of what we actually got, but the film, like its main character, gets too easily distracted and would rather not do the hard work.
Hart plays Teddy Walker, a confident but dimwitted student who drops out of high school due to concentration issues when he takes a standardized test (which they don’t call the SAT for some reason). He still makes a successful life for himself, being the top salesman at a barbecue store, landing a woman way out of his league, and tooling around in a Porsche, just like he promised his classmates after he angrily stormed out. He’s punching above his weight and living beyond his means, but everything seems to be going his way.
Then everything goes to shit due to pure stupidity. He proposes to his girlfriend inside the store, decorating everything super romantic like, including candling the fuck out of some candles IN A BARBECUE STORE WITH PROPANE TANKS EVERYWHERE! Naturally, things explode, and Teddy goes flying like a cartoon, somehow surviving the whole thing. But of course, his job is now gone (he was poised to inherit the business when his boss retired), and he can’t get another one because he never finished high school.
He attends a night school program at his old alma mater, now run by one of his former enemies (Taran Killam, cashing a check), who makes it his mission to ruin Teddy as revenge for former bullying. He’s held in check by Carrie, the night school teacher (as well as several other roles, a missed opportunity for genuine commentary on public school funding) played by Tiffany Haddish, who is objectively one of the funniest human beings alive. She and Teddy are often at odds, and she does not suffer fools, but she does genuinely care about helping people (and knocking Killam’s principal down a few pegs), so she accepts Teddy into her class. Meanwhile, Teddy has to take a job hocking Christian Chicken (just say Chick-fil-A, we all know what you’re talking about) to make ends meet.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the dynamic between Haddish and Hart, as they play off each other spectacularly. There’s genuine chemistry (not romantic – Haddish’s character is gay), and both have brilliant comic timing and delivery skills.
There’s even a good amount of fun to be had with the other misfits in the class, even if they are one-note. There’s the angry black man (Romany Malco), the convict attending class via Skype from jail (Fat Joe), and the stuck up, smoking hot, rich girl who got into trouble one too many times (Anne Winters of 13 Reasons Why and Zac & Mia, for which she’s won an Emmy). Daily Show alums Rob Riggle and Al Madrigal play comic foils for Teddy, one a dunce dullard of a dad, the other an immigrant waiter who lost his job after Teddy planted pubes in a dessert he was served.
The standout of the group is the hilarious Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe on 24), who plays a submissive suburban mom. A lot of her relationship issues with a neglectful husband and hellion kids are played for dark humor, which could come off as very awkward and uncomfortable, but her delivery makes it funny and endearing. She’s also the one supporting character that’s allowed to have any development, coming out of her shell and developing a sexually adventurous side beyond the one-dimensional joke setup of the rest of the class.
The group gets into some hijinks, like stealing a practice exam and infiltrating prom, but it’s all just set pieces and window dressings. Apart from a fun sequence of them all dancing to Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” it has absolutely no substance. And really, the plot is so paint-by-numbers that all of these diversions are just delays to the inevitable happy ending for everyone involved, even the assholes.
There was a chance to explore some deeper issues related to bullying, self-confidence, and learning disabilities, but the film shied away from such an effort. As it turns out, Teddy has a mess of learning issues, including dyslexia and dyscalculia, which he rather funnily refers to as “Learning Herpes,” because it can’t be cured. His inability to focus on words and numbers manifests itself in a cheap digital effect where things pop off the surface and fly around, forcing him to do a discount Minority Report series of hand gestures to bring them back into a semblance that he can comprehend. You can see in these moments that there was a bit of surface scratching, to see if these learning disabilities could be properly displayed on film, and properly played for both laughs and something more profound. But then we get a montage of MMA sparring where Tiffany Haddish beats the crap out of him until he can answer a question about chemical elements and gas, then “blows ass” in his face. So much for that.
Is the movie funny? I suppose so. I definitely got a few chuckles in, but not nearly enough to justify an endorsement. Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish make a solid pair, and I wish the film had spent more time developing them as a duo and as individual characters, same as I wish the scenes with the class in session had been farmed for more and better jokes, because there was no shortage of comic talent among that group. Sadly, the film just comes off as lazy, and ultimately a failure. But like Teddy himself, maybe if they keep trying, they’ll get it right in the end.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you find Kevin Hart funny? Would you do butt stuff with Mary Lynn Rajskub? Let me know! (except for that last part – don’t really wanna know that)