In its opening moments, Get Hard features two shots of Will Ferrell’s pale white backside.
This is expected — Ferrell shows his derriere in all his comedies, and he gets it over with early here. Now the movie can be creative. Daring. Try new things. Push boundaries. Make us laugh for reasons we didn’t know existed. That Get Hard attempts to do all of the above is laudable; that it only moderately succeeds is, well, laughable for many reasons.
Ferrell plays millionaire fund manager James King, and he’s on top of the world. His gold-digging fiancée Alissa (Alison Brie) can’t wait to spend her life with him in their mansion. Her father, Martin (Craig T. Nelson), also happens to be James’ boss, and things couldn’t be better at work. Or so James thinks. At their engagement party, with John Mayer playing a song for them, James is arrested and charged with 43 counts of securities fraud and 30 counts of embezzlement. He maintains his innocence.
James is sentenced to 10 years in maximum security at San Quentin State Prison. He’s given 30 days to get his affairs in order. Accordingly, he completely freaks out. He enlists the guy who washes his car, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to teach him to survive in prison. To be clear, director Etan Cohen is asking us to believe that even though James is smart enough to run billion-dollar hedge funds, he’s so blatantly ignorant he thinks Darnell has been in prison just because he’s African-American. Ordinarily this would be offensive, but Darnell is in on the joke, and Cohen gets some good laughs from Darnell’s wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson) and daughter (Ariana Neal) as a result of the situation.
The burden of the bulk of the laughs, however, lands on Ferrell and Hart, and both are up to the challenge but not always effective. James’ training includes how to fight, survive a riot, always be on guard, etc., and in each scenario, Ferrell and Hart never lack for energy. What they do lack, though, is chemistry. They’re almost awkward together, in fact. It’s as if they’re consumed with doing their own thing to make sure they appeal to their fan base, and forget that the collaborative power of comedy is stronger than what an individual can provide.
A prime example: When they’re in the makeshift prison yard and Darnell imitates a contentious African-American, Latin and gay confrontation. The scene requires Hart to shift gears in a nanosecond, but for Ferrell to just stand there, as the straight man, likely unsure if he should improv to keep the scene going or just let Hart do his thing. Conversely, Ferrell has a moment later on in the comedy in which he goes on a trash-talking rant that requires Hart to just sit and listen. Add to this some truly desperate moments, and you have a comedy that probably reads real funny on paper but doesn’t play well on the big screen.
This is Cohen’s first feature directing gig, and no doubt Ferrell and Hart’s lack of chemistry is in part due to the way the film was shot and edited. Timing, pacing, and editing are essential in comedy; a great joke can be delivered perfectly by the actor but if it’s not presented correctly, all the humor will be lost. This is not to say that happened all the time in Get Hard, but it happened enough for more jokes to miss than hit.