You don't do this every week for 35 years without picking up on a movie truism or two. Along the way, for example, I've observed that Hollywood eats its young. The industry systematically processes promising independent filmmakers into highly paid mainstream hacks. Time and again, I've likewise bemoaned its counterintuitive neutering of comic talent, the way it searches out naturally hilarious people, then pays them to stop being funny. Seen any good Amy Schumer movies lately?
Time to bemoan that pattern again, because it's happened to Kevin Hart. What does it say about the film business that Hart alone on a stage for almost two hours is gut-busting, but Hart surrounded by comic performers, delivering lines cranked out by a screenwriting workforce of six, is the comedy equivalent of nails on a chalkboard?
Where's the sense in taking Hart off that stage, sticking him in a classroom and paying him to write on an actual chalkboard? That's what director Malcolm D. Lee (Soul Men) does in Night School. The result is a textbook case of wasting everybody's time.
Talk about by-the-numbers. Hart plays Teddy, a motormouth salesman who wasn't good with them in school. Bullies like Stewart ("Saturday Night Live" alum Taran Killam) made fun of him. When the time came to take the GSAT, math problems jumped off the page and buzzed around the poor guy like isosceles mosquitoes. He dropped out.
Fast-forward a few years, and Teddy appears to have it all: a job he loves selling barbecue equipment, a girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) he loves and wants to impress, and a Porsche he loves even if he's behind on the payments.
This being the sort of movie whose makers wouldn't set it in a place filled with open flames and propane tanks unless they planned to blow that place up, one is not entirely stunned when they do. Suddenly our hero finds himself in need of a job and a GED.
You guessed it, that's where night school comes in, though you'll never guess who's now the principal of the place. Well, OK, you might. Yup, it's Teddy's old nemesis, Stewart. What are the odds? Don't ask Teddy. Math's a problem, remember?
The movie's formula for fun: Tiffany Haddish, so feisty and foul-mouthed in Girls Trip, plays the course's no-nonsense instructor. Besides Teddy, the class consists of a regulation gaggle of movie goofballs. There's Rob Riggle as an XXL goofball prone to saying Rob Riggly things, Romany Malco as a goofball prone to conspiracy theories, "24"'s Mary Lynn Rajskub as a frustrated housewife prone to referring to her butt as a walnut that needs cracking and — well, honestly, I'm foggy on the rest. They're like a long-lost pitch for a Will Ferrell film that some aspiring scribe found crumpled in an old jacket.
Every now and then, Stewart storms in and messes with Teddy. The class' motley crew bonds right on schedule. Approximately 4,700 jokes about Hart's height are attempted. The movie contains only one development you won't have seen coming from the concession counter on your way in.
Near the end of the picture, Haddish's character arranges for Hart's to be tested, and he's informed he has multiple learning disabilities. The treatment proposed? Beating them out of him. No joke. Haddish gets in the ring with him and whales until he correctly solves a math problem. As the father of a child with learning disabilities, I have to say I wasn't laughing.
To be fair, though, I wasn't laughing much before.