“Night School,” which is easy to tell apart from previous Kevin Hart movies because it takes place in a school at night, is a major turning point in its star’s long and prosperous career: Barring a complete overhaul of his entire brand, this botched first draft of a bad comedy is the last time that anyone will ever catch themselves waiting for Kevin Hart to do better.
In his latest and least amusing film — which ends with an earnest speech about the value of self-improvement — Hart is just repackaging the same manic shtick that he’s driven into the ground with the likes of “The Wedding Ringer,” “Ride Along,” and “Ride Along 2: Here We Go Again,” which has another sequel on the way. Once again, he plays a motor-mouthed striver with a heart of gold, using an elastic mask of empty affect to hide that there’s nothing going on behind it. The comedian’s bag of tricks is so limited that all of his roles have become utterly indistinguishable from each other; even when he played a teenage jock who’d been transmogrified into a small adult man’s body, it somehow felt like more of the same.
In fairness to Hart, the script for “Night School” is so leaden and senseless that not even a generational comic talent like Tiffany Haddish could save it if she were in the movie. In fairness to the rest of us, Hart wrote the script for “Night School” (along with five other credited writers), generational comic talent Tiffany Haddish is in the movie, and she doesn’t even come close to saving it (though she is able to manufacture a handful of solid moments).
The movie reunites her with “Girls Trip” director Malcolm D. Lee, and it was probably a mistake to make her very first line an amusing callback to last summer’s hilarious smash hit, as the chuckle it inspires amounts to little more than a faint reminder of what it feels like to watch something that was made with real care and believable characters. Lee’s proven talent for mixing broad situational humor with sly character work is almost completely missing in action here.
Much like “Central Intelligence,” “Night School” begins with a flashback to the protagonist’s teenage years, except this time around Hart is playing the butt of the joke. Teddy Walker is something of a delinquent student, but he’s so ashamed of his learning disabilities that nobody is given a chance to diagnose them. Teddy’s overbearing father (Keith David) makes it difficult for him to talk about his dyslexia, and his book-smart twin sister — a sharp Bresha Webb, who disappears from the movie until the tacked-on finale — mocks him every chance she gets. When Teddy clams up during the SATs, he gets so frustrated that he decides to drop out of high school and make it big on his own terms.
Seventeen years later, Teddy seems to be living the dream. He drives a sleek convertible, he’s dating a kind and beautiful woman (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and he works as a salesman at a store that sells barbecue grills. But he’s a really good salesman — so good, in fact, that the storeowner asks him to take over the place when he retires. Teddy’s a people person, and that oughta count for something. But it doesn’t count for enough to pay for Teddy’s overextended lifestyle, an elaborate illusion that he maintains on a paycheck-to-paycheck schedule; enjoy the scene where he sprinkles some of his own pubic hair over a piece of cheesecake in order to avoid paying for an expensive meal, because the movie is all downhill from there.
When Teddy ignites a gas explosion that burns down the barbecue joint, he needs to find a new job and fast. His very white, very boring friend (Ben Schwartz) promises to help him land a gig at his finance company, but only if Teddy gets his GED. And so it’s off to the titular night school, where our hero is joined by a motley crew of misfits that includes a generic idiot (Rob Riggle), who likes to talk about his “bottom bitch” (Romany Malco), a hardworking mom who desperately wants some time away from her kids (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and a Mexican immigrant who risked his life to cross the border and become a dental hygienist (Al Madrigal, far and away the funniest person here despite being saddled with an immigrant stereotype). Then there’s Fat Joe, who plays a jailed convict Skyping into class from the common area of his maximum-security prison. This bit, used sparingly, almost works.
All of these characters are united by their economic anxiety — and not in the deplorable sense of the term — but the film has no interest in unpacking their unease, or the idea that they’re all being taught for the test; that they’re eagerly buying in to the same system that’s squeezing them out. Even their teacher, Carrie (Haddish), is there because she needs the money, which makes it hard to figure how she can afford to rent a UFC gym for the inexplicable training montage where she beats some knowledge into Teddy’s head.
By that point, the movie is already so profoundly stupid that such mysteries don’t really matter. There’s really no recovering from the brainlessness of the heist sequence, in which Teddy and his pals break into the principal’s office in order to steal a practice test so they can pass the night school midterm exam (the principal is played by a thoroughly debased Taran Killam, whose performance should be a warning sign to any “SNL” cast members who might be thinking about quitting the show for studio comedies). Cheating on a GED prep course makes less than zero sense, because the only test that matters is the GED exam itself. These morons are only cheating themselves.
It’s really too bad the big set-pieces don’t work, because the rest of the film is just a tired mess of grimacing reaction shots, all of which are smelted together by a David Newman’s wall-to-wall Cheez Whiz score. Approximately 50% of the budget seems to have been spent on the Outkast songs that bookend the story, and yes, this is the kind of movie that builds to a “Hey Ya!” group dance so tired and hackneyed that Lee can’t help but cut back to it before the closing credits.
That time could’ve been used to make Teddy’s girlfriend into something more than a human prop, or to add even a vaguely credible dimension to the dynamic between them, but it doesn’t matter. All of that stuff is just window-dressing for a guy who needs to suck up all the air in every scene, even if it renders the movie around them braindead. Next time, put Haddish in the lead, and let Hart be the caustic supporting character who drops in to deliver a pep talk every now and again. It wouldn’t hurt to flip the equation.
Universal Pictures will release “Night School” in theaters on September 28th.