Get Hard, Etan Cohen's comedy about a white stockbroker who hires a black man to prepare him for a ten-year stretch in San Quentin, is like a spoon that's almost-but-not-yet sharpened into a shiv. With just a little more effort, it could kill.
Judging by the poster, in which star Kevin Hart braids cornrows into Will Ferrell's auburn curls, Get Hard looks as hoary as a Night at the Apollo stand-up still flogging the old "White people walk like this" culture-clash shtick. In truth, Ferrell's ultra-rich James King does walk kinda funny. Sauntering past his worshipful underlings at the brokerage firm run by his fiancée's (Alison Brie) father (Craig T. Nelson), Ferrell glides like a prize goose.
But Get Hard is hunting another target: not King, but the privilege he represents. Intercut with glimpses of King's Bel Air life — organic farmers' markets, brunchers ordering their dog its own plate of steak — Cohen inserts shots of the have-nots begging for work outside of Home Depot and scrounging in trash cans for scraps. Darnell's (Hart) situation isn't quite so dire. He has a house, a family and a steady business washing cars in King's tower. Still, he's short the down payment he needs to move in to a better school system than the one in Lower South Central, where his young daughter (Ariana Neal) is wanded by security guards.
Upstairs in the office, King makes the firm $28 million with one phone call. In the garage, Darnell scrubs and sweats for fivers. Yet when Darnell sucks up the nerve to ask King to invest in the future of his cleaning company, Ferrell delivers a fatuous speech on the importance of hard work. Like the tight-fisted conservatives in Congress, Ferrell's Harvard-educated silver-spooner is so blind to his own privilege that when his boss brags about founding their firm with only "me, my computer and an $8 million loan from my father," he applauds.
As befits their characters, Hart acts like a normal human, and Ferrell a cartoon. To enjoy Get Hard, you have to get over two impossibilities: 1) that a stock-market shark could be such a buffoon and 2) that when said white millionaire is convicted of fraud, the courts actually bother to sentence him to a decade in prison. (Even the judge delivering the ruling shrugs, "We don't usually do this.")
Ferrell's idiocy doesn't work. But his decency does. Instead of playing King like a callous corporate villain, he's a well-meaning sap who sincerely believes he's a good person — or, at least, certainly not a bigot. Mistaking Darnell for a carjacker, he can't admit that it was because he's black, swearing that he'd have reacted the same if he were "rich or poor or white or...miscellaneous." We empathize with King, at least to a point, and so we're both in on the joke (and complicit in it) when King mistakenly assumes that Darnell is an ex-con, citing the one-in-three incarceration statistics for black men. His prejudice is the punch line. Still, he's willing to pay Darnell $30,000 to teach him to act tough. The extra twist is that King can't tell that Darnell is a straight-arrow nerd. Darnell's wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson) is sure King will see through his thug act. But Darnell simply puts on a black skullcap and lets cultural assumptions take care of the rest.
Get Hard can't escape what it's really about: King's fear of prison rape. (To bulk up, Ferrell bench-presses Hart — a good use of their foot-long discrepancy.) The script takes circuitous detours trying to find a way to make rape funny. One scene where Hart runs in circles pretending to be three different crews in a prison-rape showdown almost works thanks to Hart's manic energy and Ferrell's daft punch line: "Are there any French gangs?" Another, where Darnell drags King to a gay restaurant so he can practice sucking dick, doesn't. Cohen earns points from casting the other patrons as normal non-stereotypes, then squanders that credit when a man gets too persistent.
The comedy is better when Cohen takes aim at benevolent racism. In an ideal world, this would be Blazing Saddles for folks who chug kombucha. Yet it's arguably harder to satirize race today than it was 40 years ago — more sensitive times impose gentler jokes. A scene with a white-supremacist biker gang is an easy bull's-eye. It's harder to watch the conversation just before, where Darnell tries to prepare King to pass as racist by calling him the N-word. King chokes it out, and Darnell whipcrack-fast clocks him in the jaw. "A reflex," he apologizes. This June, the exact same gag will pop up in the Sundance hit Dope. In 2015 we can talk bluntly about color — but there will be consequences.
Still, Get Hard is most comfortable — and funniest — when Cohen gets back to skewering class warfare. After Darnell turns King's mansion into a mock-prison, the maids and gardeners playact at treating their master like an inmate. They don't say much, but their smiles speak volumes. Chaplin's Little Tramp would be proud. And then he'd roll his eyes as if to say, "It's been 85 years since the Great Depression, and you guys are still working this out?"