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Kevin Hart Is Funny. Why Aren’t His Movies?

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘Night School’

The first time I saw Kevin Hart, I thought he was funny. It was 2012, and he was one of the stars of Think Like a Man, a mediocre romcom in which he played Cedric, the loudmouth in a group of buddies trying to figure out their girlfriends. Cedric was divorced and bitter but constantly insisting he was happy and possessed insights into the way women “really” were. He’s the sort of dude who talks a mile a minute as a way to simulate confidence.

Hart had been in movies for almost a decade by that point — including Scary Movie 3, Soul Plane and his comedy special Laugh at My Pain — but Think Like a Man felt like a breakthrough because it was a little more sophisticated than the broad comedies he’d been doing. And Hart shined: Cedric is a blustery fool, which isn’t that different than the persona he brings to his stand-up. In Laugh at My Pain and Let Me Explain, Hart juxtaposed his overtly aggressive demeanor with his cowardice and stupidity — his diminutive size is constantly in conflict with his extra-large, unearned swagger. (His 2009 special made that juxtaposition plain with its title: I’m a Grown Little Man.)

In the last six years, Hart has evolved from one of the most popular stand-ups into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He’s been a part of major hits such as Ride Along, Central Intelligence, The Secret Life of Pets and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The early promise he showed as a big-screen wiseass has paid off handsomely. So how come his movies are often so bad?

That question haunted me throughout Night School, his latest smash — and waste of time. Again we’re presented with Hart as a perfectly plausible comedic presence in a setup that’s ripe with possible funny moments. And then nothing happens. It’s not that Hart isn’t funny — he can be a riot. But his movies are, for the most part, strangely, stubbornly unfunny.

In Night School, he plays Teddy, a fast-talking grill salesman who, because of ridiculously convoluted circumstances, loses his job. He needs his GED to land meaningful employment — a development that sends him back to his old high school to attend night classes, which are run by Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), a straight-shooting teacher. Teddy’s not a bad person, but he’s a bit of a liar. (He’s too ashamed to tell his high-society fiancée Lisa, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, that he has to do night school because he doesn’t have his diploma, which leads to lots of wacky misunderstandings.) In other words, this is a pretty typical Kevin Hart character: Teddy is a massive bundle of insecurities who overestimates his ability to charm or convince others into seeing things his way.

All comic stars have their persona, and being a fan means, in part, signing up for what that particular star is selling about themselves. Will Ferrell, Hart’s Get Hard costar, is the entitled, deeply mediocre white guy. Haddish brandishes a shoot-from-the-lip, no-fucks-given sexually assertive demeanor. Meanwhile, Hart is the lovable irritant — even when he plays a respectable, put-upon family man, like he does in Get Hard or Central Intelligence, he’s meant to be an incorrigible pain in the ass.

In his stand-up, that persona works really well. On stage, Hart invites us to mock him — the punch line is often that he’s in the wrong — but he’s rarely been able to translate that into movies. It’s because there’s something fundamentally different about the two mediums. Behind the mic, especially when he’s performing in massive arenas, Hart is dwarfed by his surroundings, outnumbered by his fans. There’s vulnerability and self-effacement inherent in the presentation, and Hart amplifies it by occasionally sitting on a stool that comically emphasizes how short his legs are, essentially neutering his own masculinity.

For the most part, his films haven’t been able to recapture that winning formula. Especially as he’s progressed from supporting player to leading man, that self-mocking has been diluted by ego. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek nailed this dilemma perfectly in her Night School review: “[F]or now, at least, a movie featuring Kevin Hart is going to be a Kevin Hart movie: at this point, his personality is too big to fold up; his jackrabbit energy dominates. That doesn’t leave much oxygen for Haddish, whose loopy, billowing spirit needs lots of airspace.” As good a stand-up as Hart is, he’s not great center stage in a film because he doesn’t allow for anything else to exist in his orbit. (Watching Night School, you’d never know Haddish had just enjoyed a breakout role in last year’s surprise hit Girls Trip.) And he’s not fun enough company to be a true solo act.

Hart’s career has often been positioned as an inspirational rags-to-riches tale, how he grew up in a small apartment with his single mom and older brother, hitting the stand-up circuit in his teens and struggling for years. (Plus, his father was a drug addict.) In interviews, Hart comes across almost as a motivational speaker: “I won’t acknowledge what I won’t let beat me,” he said in 2015. “Have I experienced racism? Of course. But will I make you feel superior by saying I’ve felt trumped at times? No. I’ll beat you by succeeding. I want to show my generation that a man of color, despite the roadblocks, can still make it.”

Not surprisingly then, Hart is a guy with his eye on the prize — he’s somebody who thinks in terms of his brand, and he makes no apologies about his strategy for global domination. And yet, he’s at his best when he’s encouraging us to laugh at his pain — to see him as the irritable, deeply flawed, not-very-tall guy with the funny voice. Unfortunately, his starring vehicles do the opposite — they want us to love him. (In Night School, Teddy may be a fool, but he’s still the coolest guy in the movie.)

In a lot of ways, I miss the Hart of Think Like a Man, stealing scenes from the margins and having a ball. It’s telling that the Hart vehicle I probably like best is Central Intelligence, where he’s basically the straight man to Dwayne Johnson’s far zanier character. (Same for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.) It’s the fundamental problem that Hart hasn’t yet licked: He’s an appealing comic who wants to be a star but might be better as a second banana.

Here are a few other takeaways from Night School. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Let’s rank the film’s best supporting players.

Contrary to how it might seem, Night School isn’t just the Kevin Hart show. The film finds Teddy taking evening classes alongside other adult students, who are a predictable grab bag of goofballs. It’s a talented ensemble, but not all of them are well-used. So, here’s my quick rundown of the three funniest supporting actors in Night School. (And I’m not counting Haddish because her name’s above the title on the poster.)

3) Al Madrigal. A Daily Show With Jon Stewart alum, Madrigal has been busy since he left the show in 2016, acting in About a Boy and I’m Dying Up Here and doing stand-up. His Night School character is basically a racist stereotype — Luis, a lowly Hispanic waiter with poor English who gets fired because of Teddy — but Madrigal succeeds in making him funny, likeable and human. The trick is that Madrigal brings such a winning innocence to the guy — yes, Luis keeps mispronouncing the job he wants to pursue after he gets his GED (a dental hygienist), but the character’s sincerity is so affecting that you root for him. Which is sorta sad since I think the filmmakers actually want us just to laugh at him.

2) Romany Malco. Malco and Hart previously costarred in Top Five, but you probably remember them better from their scene together in The 40-Year-Old Virgin:

Aim high, Willis. Malco is on the new ABC series A Million Little Things in a dramatic role, but he’s awfully funny in Night School as Jaylen, a weirdo who has tons of conspiracy theories about how technology is destroying our lives. (The reason for his paranoia: He just lost his blue-collar job to a robot.) Malco turns the character into such a jittery loony that Jaylen’s slow-burn freak-outs are almost touching.

1) Mary Lynn Rajskub. What an unlikely career Rajskub has had. She started off in 1990s comedies like The Larry Sanders Shows and Mr. Show before radically switching gears to play the formidable Chloe on 24. She’s back to comedy for Night School, and she’s been gifted with a character who’s perfect for her. She’s Theresa, a haggard mother who gets very little support from her husband. Theresa wants her GED so she can get a job and find a sliver of independence, while also providing her working-class family with a better life.

In the 1990s, Rajskub would play the picked-on or uncool woman, and Theresa initially feels similar — she’s a mousy pushover who’s swallowed her resentment so that she can convince herself that she’s “blessed.” But Rajskub keeps hinting at Theresa’s simmering anger, and so it’s fun when the character finally gets to break free of her shackles and express herself. Like all of Night School’s characters, Theresa is a cliché — the sheltered mom who’s a closet freak — but Rajskub figures out how to make her hilarious. Truth be told, she’s funnier than Hart in the movie.

#2. Here’s a quick rundown of other movies called ‘Night School.’

As its generic title might suggest, Night School isn’t the first film to ever be called Night School. There have been tons of shorts and TV episodes with that name, but as best as I can tell, there are only two other Night School feature films. Like the Hart movie, they are, you guessed it, about night school. That’s about the only thing they have in common, though.

The first is 1981’s Night School, a forgotten horror film about a psychopath who has a nasty habit of beheading women. He enjoys targeting a local night school full of beautiful, unsuspecting victims. I’ve never seen this Night School, but nothing about this trailer makes me think it’s a major gap in my film knowledge:

On the other end of the spectrum, you have 2017’s documentary Night School, which looks at three adults in Indianapolis who are trying to earn their high school diplomas, despite considerable obstacles. The film got great reviews, with critics lauding director Andrew Cohn for shining a light on the challenges facing those who try to continue their education in adulthood.

Cohn’s film feels like the one that Hart’s film sometimes gestures toward, showing how people can change their lives even when they think they’re stuck in their circumstance. The documentary probably isn’t as funny as Hart’s film, but at least there aren’t any decapitations.

#3. Celebrities aren’t shy about talking about their battles with dyslexia.

What we learn in Night School is that the reason why Teddy never graduated from high school was that he had problems reading and concentrating. While attending night school, he’s diagnosed by Carrie as having, among other things, dyslexia. Night School tends to be a little flippant about the condition, even though it can be a major barrier for those who have it when they’re trying to find work. (According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, nearly 66 percent of people without dyslexia were employed, while less than 19 percent of those with the condition were.)

I decided to do a little looking around to see which movie stars and athletes have dyslexia, and how they combatted it. Here’s a quick rundown:

1) Tom Cruise. The Mission: Impossible star was diagnosed with dyslexia as a kid, but he was too embarrassed to tell classmates or teachers. So, as he told People in 2003, he learned to fake his way around the problem. “I raised my hand a lot,” Cruise said. “I knew that if I participated, I’d get extra points and could pass. If I had a test in the afternoon, I’d find kids at lunchtime who’d taken the test that morning and find out what it was like.” Ironically, the trick for him was through Scientology, whose founder L. Rob Hubbard had developed what he called Study Technology, which was meant to help students learn. “I had run the gamut, hiring specialists for myself privately, bringing in tutors and hearing why I would just have to ‘learn to deal’ with being dyslexic,” the actor said. “Many people had tried to teach me, but no one had taught me how to learn or how to study; I had been told I had all the symptoms of dyslexia, but no one had [ever] given me a solution.” If people ever wonder why Cruise can’t walk away from Scientology, this is probably one of the main reasons — he credits Hubbard with helping him lick his disability.

2) Muhammad Ali. Arguably the most famous athlete of the 20th century battled dyslexia most of his life. Interestingly, though, the condition might have helped him be a better boxer. The 2017 biography Ali: A Life argued that dyslexia caused his brain to operate differently than other fighters’. Author Jonathan Eig drew his theory from conversations he had with specialists, saying, “When you learn to read, your brain gets re-wired so that you focus really carefully on one thing, you can concentrate really hard on those letters on the page. But when you never learn to read, your brain remains more accessible to outside forces. … Ali, because he learned to read very late and never really very well, may have been better at picking up visual clues than most people. He may have been able to see little signs in his opponent’s body that suggested when and where the punch was going to come.”

3) Cher. The Oscar-winning actress and singer didn’t realize she was dyslexic until she had her child tested, discovering as a result that they both were. In retrospect, it made sense: She had dropped out of high school because she was so dissatisfied. “I’m a terrible reader,” she said in 1985. “I don’t write letters. Numbers and I have absolutely no relationship. I can dial a phone okay, as long as it’s not long distance. I write the first letter of the word, and my mind races to the last letter. I see words and jumble them together. I see great billboards, billboards no one has ever invented.” Cher ultimately learned how to memorize scripts by reading them very slowly, but her dyslexia also had its advantages: It’s how she got romantically involved with Tom Cruise. As she recently mentioned, the two spent some time together during a joint White House event in the 1980s to raise awareness of dyslexia. “We didn’t go out till way later,” Cher said, “but there definitely was a connection there.” (This is a good time to mention that Cher has said that Cruise is one of her Top 5 greatest romances.)

#4. Kevin Hart needs to do more sports stuff.

Even if his movies are often duds, Hart is a great talk-show guest and stand-up. He’s also fabulous when he’s hanging out with athletes. A big Philly fan, Hart is often courtside for 76ers games. And when he is, he always talks shit to the opposing players — and then, sometimes, even clowns on them during their postgame interviews.

But Hart’s best sports moment came earlier this year when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, and he decided that he had to go on stage to hoist the championship trophy — even though he had no credentials that allowed him to do so. Also, he was drunk. None of this stopped Hart, as he explained later on Conan in very amusing detail.

Spoiler Alert: Those two videos, combined, are way better than Night School. And they’re free to watch on YouTube.