No Soap-Dropping: Ferrell and Hart can't get "Get Hard" funny enough

Get Hard (2015)
100 min., rated R.

"Get Hard" is better than it looks, which is to say that it's still not very good but not intolerably awful. Theoretically, a mismatched buddy comedy (with an obvious double-entendre title) starring go-to doofus Will Ferrell and pint-sized, motor-mouthed Kevin Hart to riff on one another and goof off together sounds like it could be an anarchic gas. They could be like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in "Trading Places." Add to that theory that comedies about race relations can be smart and funny, too (check out 2014's "Dear White People" for a recent example). While "Get Hard" isn't operating on that level, this is a dumb, silly R-rated comedy out to push the envelope but reel it in safely, more along the lines of the lame 2003 Jamie Kennedy comedy "Malibu's Most Wanted." Given the recent controversy of the film screening at the SXSW Film Festival in which an audience member was appalled by the comedy's homophobia and racism, "Get Hard" is not even offensive enough to be worth getting riled up about. It's just too middle-of-the-road and not all that inspired for that.

Dimwitted Wall Street fat cat James King (Will Ferrell) is marrying his hot, gold-digging fiancée, Alissa (Alison Brie), and has just been named partner by his father-in-law boss (Craig T. Nelson). He goes from having so much money to the feds interrupting his engagement party, being accused of fraud and embezzlement and then slapped with a 10-year sentence at San Quentin State Prison. In the 30 days he has, James pays Darnell (Kevin Hart), the honest-living operator of a car wash in James' office tower parking garage, $30,000 to train him to "get hard" and defend himself in the slammer from getting assaulted and becoming "someone's bitch." The catch is, the white James just assumes the black Darnell is an ex-con, but he's closer to Cliff Huxtable than a street thug. As Darnell renovates James' mansion into a prison and gets some insider advice from his gang leader cousin, James will eventually get "hard," even though he's actually being framed.

Writer-director Etan Cohen was one of three scribes behind 2008's "Tropic Thunder," a giddily offensive and very funny satire that mercilessly skewered the film industry and memorably put Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. Here, he makes his directorial debut and is once again part of a trio of writers, alongside Jay Martel & Ian Roberts (TV's "Key and Peele"). An apparent send-up of racial big-house stereotypes, "Get Hard" is equal-opportunity in its targets and has its moments, but it should be funnier than it really is. Prison rape is not an inherently knee-slapping topic, as long as the target is that of overprivileged white straight males, but it can most likely be done if the un-PC humor is handled with a tricky balance. There just isn't enough comic momentum within the flabbily paced 100 minutes and too few big laughs, and it seems director Cohen has no interest in paying off some of the jokes by either going too far or not far enough. Take for example when Darnell takes James to a gay brunch spot and dares him to take a man (Matt Walsh) into the bathroom stall and give him a blow job because that's "what [the gays] do"; there is a quick cutaway to a penis that James' mouth will eventually, in slow-motion, get close to and that's the punchline. Groan. Or, when Darnell tells James to go fight a muscular man in the park; the joke doesn't build to much. Even a set-piece where James tries getting in with a gang of Nazi skinheads once he's in on the inside is full of non-laughs. There are also the easy jokes where James bench-presses the diminutive Darnell and later dresses in gangster gear like Lil Wayne to go meet Darnell's thug cousin Russell (rapper T.I.), who leads the Crenshaw Kings gang and later names James "Mayo." Darnell also forms a sort-of friendship with a smiling gay man (T.J. Jagodowski) who would like to convert him. For the gags that do work, Darnell renovates James' mansion into a prison, staging a phone call line with James' housekeepers and later a prison riot simulation, and at the dinner table with Darnell's family and James, Darnell lies about his time in prison by summarizing the 1991 film "Boyz n the Hood."

When Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart are individually "on," they can be hilarious. Together, they are both game as always, but they're up against lackluster material, which seems to be the problem in most comedies of late. As James King, who drops statistics to rationalize why Darnell would have done time, Ferrell does what Will Ferrell does, playing a boorish, oblivious boob. Despite his wimpy cry-baby shtick, a great "mad dog" face, and his attempts at trash-talking, this role will not find a place in the lovable bozo's hall of fame. As Darnell, Hart might give his most grounded screen performance as a struggling family man who has a great relationship with his wife and daughter. He even gets more laughs than Ferrell when his energy is untamed, like when he pricelessly impersonates three different stereotypes in a prison yard to intimidate James. Edwina Findley Dickerson and Ariana Neal lend sweet, warm support as Darnell's wife Rita and daughter Makayla, both voices of reason, but other performers don't get the chance to fare as well. Alison Brie is always a go-getting comedian, but she's too good for the thankless, caricatured role of Alissa, James' spoiled, materialistic fiancée. John Mayer also makes his second cameo in a film this year (the one in "Zombeavers" is funnier), but this time, he plays himself.

Laughs in a comedy can trump everything else. Funny is funny, but "Get Hard" is never as edgy or as gut-busting as it thinks it is. Just imagine "Trading Places" with a dozen prison rape and "keistering" jokes—as if that film needed any. Is this a satire of retrograde stereotypes? Is it presenting 2015's close-minded, insensitive misconceptions and bigotries of other races and sexual orientations and then just mocking the characters for their misconceptions and bigotries? One can safely assume "Get Hard" doesn't even know what it is or how to do it. Held up against other vehicles with these individual funnymen, it is far better than Kevin Hart's deadening "The Wedding Ringer" from earlier this year, but there are so many Will Ferrell alternatives with more replay value. In spite of the predominantly limp script, these two do have some crackling chemistry together, but unfortunately, this vehicle does not go over like gangbusters.