Beneath the layers of gags, Get Hard is a thoughtful buddy comedy about a man brought to the brink of desperation and back.
It’s a question you might have pondered at some point: “Could I survive in prison?” In Get Hard, this question is posed to ultra-rich hedge fund manager James King (Will Ferrell). Framed for fraud and sentenced to a ten-year stretch in America’s most notorious prison, King is given thirty days to get his affairs in order; thirty days to learn how to survive on the inside.
A buddy vehicle
The immediate commentary to be drawn out of this desperate situation is that this supposedly powerful businessman; raised up through years of hard work, success literature and a gold-digging wife, is quickly exposed to himself as a complete softy the minute his physical survival is called into question. This conflict actually makes King a fairly relatable character, in spite of his one-percenter status.
Consumed by fear, King seeks salvation in the form of car washer and family man Darnell (Kevin Hart), whom King is convinced has done hard time, on the grounds that “one in three black men have been to prison”.
King is willing to pay big for Darnell’s survival “expertise” and out of his own desperation to put food on the table, Darnell is happy enough to play the stereotype. What follows is a thirty day program of Darnell’s own imagining that sees his vision of every prison situation prepared for, boot camp style!
These Hollywood-ised concepts are called into question when the unlikely duo come face-to-face with real life gang-bangers and white supremacists. It’s here the action and tension really begins to ratchet up, as the reality of the situation veers ever closer (not to mention a hilarious simulated prison riot in the converted wine cellar of King’s luxurious home).
It’s interesting to see King’s weaknesses exposed to higher and higher degrees and for the most part this dynamic pays off, although one scene in a men’s bathroom puts him in a position that is a little too vulnerable and vulgar to sit through comfortably.
The film’s greatest strength is without doubt the excellent improvised comedy generated through the interplay between Ferrell and Hart. Ferrell channels his character’s heightened state of fear and alertness into comedy gold the way only Ferrell can. Hart spontaneously feeds off this with his own brand of faux-tough-guy masquerading. His complete lack of actual prison experience and toughness is illustrated by one scene in a staged prison yard where he enacts a three-man tussle over who gets to deal with King, pulling every stereotype out of his Rolodex in the process (of course King buys into it, not knowing any better himself!). Moments like this simply couldn’t be scripted and in many cases, they weren’t.
It’s when the film goes on-the-rails to deliver laughs with shock gags and set-piece moments that its flaws are revealed. The result is a film that is structured more tightly than the likes of Talladega Nights – Ferrell’s most improv-heavy credit – but regularly steers into cliché territory, offensive stereotyping and repetitive “prison shower” jokes.
Despite these stumbles, the film is rounded out by a supporting cast that make the most of their limited screen time. Right before King is arrested, he is toasted at a celebration of his business success and then joined on-stage by John Mayer (as himself), whom King later sees on a Jimmy Kimmel interview denying any affiliation with “that monster James King”. This is a fun cameo and neat touch that gives Ferrell all the more to play with as he acts out a kind of tragic comedy that lingers just long enough to set up the next laugh.
Get Hard comically captures the fear of going to prison and the story is most satisfying when Ferrell and Hart are left to do what they do best – create hilarity from thin air, with nothing but each other’s reactions to play off. The social commentary soon takes a back seat to the improvisation of its comedy duo and is all the stronger for it. Now I just really hope I never get done for fraud!
Get Hard is out now in UK cinemas.