Laugh at My Pain, starring the stand-up comic and comic actor Kevin Hart, has the hallmarks of a vanity project: Hart leading a camera crew through "the old neighborhood" (Philadelphia); Hart including a short film, a comic remake of Reservoir Dogs featuring a bunch of his friends and Taraji P. Henson. Even so, Laugh at My Pain is an amusing 80 or so minutes at the movies.
When he's onstage, a bundle of manic energy, funny voices, simple props, catch-phrases and shtick, Hart delivers. His is a stand-up act built on classic comic underpinnings — family, sexual inadequacy and repetition, aka "running gags."
The man-on-the-street prologue has the 5-foot-5 inch Hart (Little Fockers, the Scary Movie franchise) reveling in his high school sports glories. Friends from those days back him up.
"Was I good or not?"
He stares into school trophy cases, not seeing his name listed. He joshes with his public pool swim coaches (their story was told in the movie Pride) and brushes off the "famous alumni" poster at his high school, which has Will Smith front and center but doesn't include him.
He gets choked up as he rounds up his family for a reunion. "Thank you for the upbringing," he says.
And then he rides that tiny elevator up onto the stage and proceeds to kill. He jokes about the high-flying lifestyle of a celebrity, and the hard financial lessons he's learned.
"Stay in your lane." Don't try to hang with people with mountains of cash who have no concern about spending it. Spending with jocks at Vegas? He can't. "I'm not gonna lie," he says, one of his favorite phrases. "I got the bill. I didn't like it."
A running gag: his way of begging off doing something expensive. "Listen, the way my bank account is set up. ..." It's what kept NBA star Dwyane Wade from talking Hart into buying a boat.
He roars through a botched Sponge Bob birthday party for his daughter, the insanity of buying her a puppy and not realizing what a pit bull is, his "crazy cokehead" father's various indiscretions. "I cannot make this up," he begins many stories. And to back that up, his dad shows up in a closing sketch, verifying the various routines to Larry King, no less.
Dad took him to school functions in sweatpants with no underwear. Dad, who loved "the booger sugar," aka cocaine, would roar into spelling bees bellowing "Alright, alright, allllll-riiiiiiiiiight," seizing attention and showing off his sweatpants with no underwear.
Hart is less at home with the structured Plastic Cup Boyz short film (directed by Tim Story), a Tarantino knock-off that isn't nearly as funny as the stand-up material. And his messing around with structure (much of the funniest off-the-cuff stuff is in the opening and closing credits) means that the film flails about, with us never quite sure it has begun and not at all certain it has ended.
Like a lot of comics, Hart has taken the petty grievances and big pains of his childhood and turned them into stand-up fodder that is funny, familiar and biting. Ten years after breaking into show business, he's a little too old and too familiar to be "discovered." But if Laugh at My Pain — the No. 1 movie when it opened in limited release Sept. 9, based on per-screen grosses — makes people take a second look at this perpetual third banana on the big screen, so much the better.