Get Hard arrives at a moment when America could use some truth-telling about racial realities, but rather than address these issues in a critical or even humorous way, the movie is a lazy assemblage of rape jokes and racial stereotypes. When hedge fund manager James (Will Ferrell) is arrested and convicted for nefarious white-collar crimes, the judge is determined to make an example of him, sending him off to San Quentin for the maximum ten years. James has thirty days to get his affairs in order and, after mistaking his car washer, Darnell (Kevin Hart), for an ex-con on account of his blackness, enlists him as his prison coach.
The formula is in line with your typical odd couple buddy comedy. Two guys from separate words learn to coexist and in doing so form an unlikely friendship. The set-up also follows a certain post-racial American narrative, or perhaps a post-post-racial one. On the one hand, Get Hard is pleadingly self-aware, almost too eager to make a statement about the persistence of stereotypes in a charged social climate. In an early scene, James is sitting in his luxury car and nearly wets his pants when Darnell appears at his window, ostensibly to return the keys and not to hold him up as James presumes. The gag is supposed to funny in part because it’s so depressingly accurate.
While the film acknowledges that there is an enduring race problem in America and sets up its story for satire, it doesn’t follow through. James proceeds to lecture Darnell on the virtue of hard work, citing himself as an example, and then offers a tone-deaf explanation on why his assumption that Darnell is a convict is statistically sound. The liberal-minded audience is expected to see through James patronizing and, let’s be honest, racist, attitudes.
Ferrell resorts to his usual over-the-top buffoonery and makes it easy to see his character for the privileged ignoramus that he is, but his casting also undermines the film’s message. You can’t really hate on Ferrell, so rather than seriously calling into question the character or the environment that incubates his way of thinking, James is elevated to the misguided but still likable, somewhat befuddled hero. Meanwhile, Darnell gets downgraded to supporting player. Sure, the latter needs to come up with enough money to send his daughter to a better school, one that doesn’t require her to pass through a metal detector every morning, and this is why he agrees to play minstrel and entertain James’s offer. The problem, however, is easily dispensed with a single check.
The real dilemma belongs to the wealthy, white protagonist who, as it turns out, is totally innocent of his crimes, was set up by his scheming boss and soon-to-be father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson), is abandoned by his selfish, beautiful young wife (Alison Brie), and now faces the horrifying possibly of being raped every day for the next ten years, so the movie insists. The focus is drawn on rescuing him from his shitty situation, and the character demands sympathy. Because while James may be a snob who mistreats his help and profiles like a cop on probation (okay, certain cops), he tries to fit in with Darrell’s actual con cousin and, most importantly, can’t bring himself to say the “n” word if his life literally depended on it. If that isn’t enlightened, I don’t know what is.
The movie is a letdown considering its possibilities. It allows the benefit of the doubt to those who want to feel good about race without calling anything into question. James is let off the hook on almost every account and Darnell, despite his handsome paycheck, will still be returning car keys to white, middle-aged hedge fund managers. It would have been nice to see Hart try riskier, more caustic material, but then we might be dealing with James levels of uncomfortable, and no one wants that.
Prod: Chris Henchy, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Dir: Etan Cohen
Writer: Jay Martel, Ian Roberts, Etan Cohen
Cast: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Greg Germann
Time: 100 min
Country: United States