Synopsis – A group of troublemakers are forced to attend night school in hope that they’ll pass the GED exam to finish high school.
My Take – Released last year among a slew of blockbusters, director Malcolm D. Lee‘s aptly titled film, Girls Trip, turned out to be a surprisingly major success story. What made that film work so well, despite its fair share of raunchiness and debauchery, each character was a fully realized, unique individual and shared great chemistry amongst each other. Aside from the laughs, the film also had a big heart as it delved into the subject of long-term friendships and how they change and evolve over time. A result of which this film, which sees him reuniting with Tiffany Haddish following her star making role, along with the scene chewing comedian Kevin Hart as his main star, has been on everyone’s radar since the first trailer dropped in.
However, this film did not operate in the same vein as expected, with the addition of lacking the same kind of thoughtfulness and insight, it rather delivers exactly what you would expect from a comedy starring Hart and Haddish. In the sense, if ever there was an example of comedy holding together a wayward project, this is it. It peppers in plenty of jokes, some hit while others miss so badly that they can hardly be recognized as attempts at humor. The humor here is an eclectic mix of silly, sweet and ridiculous, a result of a six writer team patching together the script.
Nevertheless, the film easily could have been a disaster if not for the talented ensemble of on-screen talent, who make the film actually quite entertaining and admittedly guilty pleasure. Well of course, it was quite evident that this film was never going to be the most original, the most award winning, or even the cleverest ideas to come to the market, but with a little originality and the absence other problematic content, this could have been a top-notch addition to the Hart library.
The story follows Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart), a high school dropout who has managed to make a good life for himself thanks to his charming nature and overconfident techniques. Working as a salesman in a barbecue store, drives a Porsche, and in relationship with Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a beautiful, successful, wealthy and patient woman, Teddy believes he has achieved everything which a high school degree could not get him. But everything falls apart when he accidentally blows up the barbecue store, leaving him unemployed. However his oldest friend, Marvin (Ben Schwartz) has a plan, pass the GEDs and he will get him fixed in his firm as a stock broker.
Reluctantly Teddy returns to Piedmont, his former high school, in the hopes of reaching a solution with the school’s principal. However, his former tormentor from school Stewart (Taran Kilam) is now the principal, and a baseball wielding tyrant who refuses to cut corners for Teddy. Desperately he enrolls into the night school and immediately clashes with Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), his tutor, who takes an instant dislike to the motor mouthed Teddy suspecting that he will take shortcuts rather than put in the hard work required to pass the course, unlike his classmates which include Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a worn out housewife, Big Mac (Rob Riggle), a father with a point to prove, Jay (Romany Malco), the conspiracy obsessed nut, Mila (Anne Winters), a self-absorbed teen, Luis (Al Madrigal), a Mexican waiter who got fired because of Teddy, and Bobby (Fat Joe), a prisoner who attends class via Skype. Expectedly Teddy does try to find his way around and is often a bad influence on his classmates, but Carrie notices that it’s not because he is not willing to hard work or has a massive ego to feed, but something else which Teddy himself refuses to notice or accept, which has been slowing him down all along.
This is one of those goofy comedies, that lets audiences relax, where no deep thinking necessary. A classic popcorn and watch situation. A comedy film needs to keep moving and for the most part the film works well to keep things engaging despite the predictability to come. With a Kevin Hart film, I can never tell how much I’m going to laugh, but when it came to the film, I believe about half the film had me in stitches. Here, the comic moments while inconsistent, have a decent strike rate and when they truly deliver, it filled the room with laughter. Hart‘s antics are very funny at times, where the delivery and dialogue fit together so well that it left me in tears. Certain set pieces work better than others; there’s physical comedy in a high-school heist scene involving Hart and the other students.
And the fill-in job Teddy takes at a fast food joint calling itself “Christian Chicken” is funny without ever mocking characters simply for having sincere religious beliefs. But a groan-inducing moment involving cheesecake and pubic hair lands the wrong side of gross-out. But the problem here lies mainly with the script. Kevin Hart, who has also written and produced this film, described this as ‘The Breakfast Club with adults’, and while the two films share a familiar premise – a group of troublemakers having to attend school after hours – that’s ultimately where the similarity ends. Where the John Hughes’ classic has amassed a following over the years thanks to its unique characters and the chemistry they share despite their differences, the students here, are simply a group of stereotypes, like the frustrated stay-at-home mum, the technophobe, and the immigrant with a funny accent.
While these characteristics are inevitably milked for many comedic moments, it doesn’t take long before the jokes begin to feel recycled. Instead this film is something of a poor man’s Community, and there is little in here that hasn’t already been said in that show’s breadth. But where Dan Harmon’s writing was that show’s strength, it is probably unsurprising that this film is relying solely on Hart’s and Haddish’s energy.
So while the rest of the clumsily assembled elements are very much a case of diminishing returns, it is at least entertaining for much of its running time owing to its leads. When their natural banter is taken away, the jokes get a little tired. And with so many jokes made at the expense of Kevin Hart’s height, you have to wonder if he is being limited by school-based stories written as an excuse for Hart to play a teenager. Because, in case you didn’t get the joke, he’s short. However, what makes this different from what passes for comedies these days is that it’s not only about humiliating its characters, but also about their redemption. In the sense, Teddy and the other students are all in need of a second chance, try to find a shortcut, but ultimately learn that it comes through commitment and hard work. Even the principal gets such a moment.
It also tries to inspire, reminding us that it’s never too late to achieve our dreams. And it also shows the importance of great educators, as well as what students can achieve when they work hard and when friends and family believe in them. Seriously, if we strip the narrative down to the bare essentials, there’s some promise to be found. Many people don’t complete their education for various reasons. For those who decide to go back, they have to wrestle with a jumble of emotions: the anxiety of learning things that most people learn in their teens, having to convince themselves that what they’re doing will work out for them in the long run, etc. This all makes for an opportunity for an interesting character study.
The disappointment comes from the plot not focusing enough on these themes, as we barely get to see any of the work that Teddy or his classmates do, nor do we see them make any progress from the start of the class to their final exams. Instead, the focus shifts to a number of meaningless scenes that have very little connection between one another. Teddy’s attempts to keep night school a secret from his fiancé is barely an afterthought through much of the run time, but then becomes the central point of tension in the second and third acts.
But looking at its opening box office numbers, I guess sometimes you just got to watch a big, dumb, stupid film starring a short man who’s not afraid to make fun of his stature. Anyone who is already familiar with Kevin Hart’s signature brand of comedy won’t be disappointed by this film as he remains in top form. Some of his best moments are when he is interacting with his father (Keith David), who does nothing but belittle his son. Tiffany Haddish too is hilarious and equally a force when imposing her gruff edge and when showing her softer side as a no-nonsense teacher. The supporting cast selected for this film is nothing short of outstanding. Keith David, Taran Kilam, Rob Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Romany Malco, and Fat Joe all deliver gut-busting laughs which I suspect will make them instantly more charming to the audience. Megalyn Echikunwoke, Al Madrigal, Ben Schwartz and Anne Winters are likable too. On the whole, ‘Night School’ is a disposable comedy which struggles to maintain a balance between its genuinely funny moments and its inert writing.
Directed – Malcolm D. Lee
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 111 minutes