Kevin Hart finds himself shoehorned into a Will Ferrell buddy comedy in Get Hard, a politically incorrect romp that romps only rarely.
It's a Trading Places variation, with Ferrell as James, a top fund manager busted by the Feds and set to go to prison. So he turns to someone for help in acquiring survival skills for "inside," to Get Hard enough to not be killed. How'd he pick Darnell, the small businessman from South Central who runs an executive's car wash service?
"I was being black," Darnell (Hart) tells his wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson).
Ferrell and his team of writers play around with this familiar salt-and-pepper combo to expose the arrogant, prissy 1 percenter/Harvard Business School alum to black culture and his prejudices about it. Hip hop, Lil Wayne wardrobe, trash talk and slang, James studies up. Not that he learns to see past his prejudices, any more than the film does.
The joke about Darnell is that he's anything but "hard." He's a doting daddy with no police record. But he takes a big chunk of cash from James to school him, converts the man's Bel Air mansion into a version of San Quentin and fakes his way through how to eat, carry yourself, defend yourself and how to act in "The Yard." That involves Hart imitating black thugs, Chicano prison gangsters and Yard queens.
Darnell takes a few tips from his genuinely hard Crenshaw cousin (T.I.), toys with James' Afro-phobia and their shared homophobia in the training. Get Hard minces into places it shouldn't in the process.
But that's largely the point here — crossing lines no one else still crosses. Generally, this movie doesn't so much invert stereotypes as embrace them. Very retro.
It's hit or miss material, with Ferrell playing it stiff and goofy and Hart straight-jacketed into a character that is rarely top drawer Kevin Hart funny. One gag that works: the Hispanic servants at James' mansion giddily get into playing fellow inmates who torment their insufferable, super rich boss. One "lights out" riot (strobed) is a hoot.
Craig T. Nelson is the too-obvious villain, but John Mayer scores as a self-mocking version of his lady killer image.
Ferrell is as fearless as ever, stripping down and looking foolish, willing to be out-of-touch and out-of-step. Hart has his manic moments. But in this buddy comedy, the buddies are not equal and that limits the laughs.