Will Ferrell has built his film career on being an everyman (“Old School”) or a naïf devoid of self-consciousness (“Elf,” “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” this list goes on, frankly).
In Etan Cohen’s “Get Hard,” Ferrell goes with the latter, but adds a patina of ultra-rich entitlement as James King, an investment banker. King lives in a Bel Air mansion and is the sort who does naked stretches in front of the mortified Latino help and is about to marry his boss’s rich-kid daughter (Alison Brie; her dad is Craig T. Nelson).
Struggling businessman Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart, splitting the difference between family man and his usual manic self) lives in the other Los Angeles – his daughter’s Crenshaw school is dangerous and his car detailing business doesn’t provide him with the $30,000 down payment he needs to move into better digs. (It would have been nice to see a little more from his wife, played by Edwina Findley, but that is the least of the problems here.)
Lewis has been detailing King’s car for years and when he asks King for, essentially, an investment, the prep-school-educated King responds handing him a $2 tip. The goof, of course, is that Ferrell has no idea how obnoxious he is. But the audience certainly does.
So when King’s arrested, tried and convicted for embezzlement, the judge throws the book at him and sentences him to 10 years to San Quientin instead of 12 months at club fed. King, thinking Lewis has done time, asks him for help to prepare for prison. Lewis needs the cash and agrees.
Cue a seemingly endless string of half-hearted class jokes, Ferrell’s usual awkward gags at his own expense, prison rape riffs and a homophobic streak that isn’t nearly as self-deprecating that you pray the filmmakers think it is.
No kidding: the gay-panic stuff in “Get Hard” is legitimately shocking. Not in a ground-breaking, wow-did-they-really-just-do-that? way but more in a Gee-do-they-realize-how-regressive-this-stuff-is? way.
A family newspaper precludes a detailed description but let’s just say that Lewis, unimpressed with King’s dedication to his training, lets King know that the only way that King is going to survive in prison is if he learns to “suck (expletive).”
Cue a scene in the stall of a popular gay brunch spot, Ferrell on his knees. Of course, King can’t bring himself to do it, so, well, it’s time to bulk up. It’s staggeringly obnoxious in tone and execution.
Plot machinations ensue, including a solid turn by rapper T.I. as Lewis’s legitimately gangster cousin, an insipid scene involving white supremacists and whole mess of racial stereotype jokes. Ferrell and Hart are funny guys but man alive, is this a misfire.
The SXSW Paramount audience, being the generous souls they typically are, laughed at every moment.
Look, it’s you hour and a half. But if you walk out of “Get Hard” reminded that the national mood might not be quite right for a comedy packed with gay panic and class jokes, don’t say you weren’t warned. To paraphrase the Afghan Whigs, for the duration of “Get Hard,” this must be what jail is really like.