Title: Night School
Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Written by: Kevin Hart, Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, Matthew Kellard, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg
Starring: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Taran Killam, Yvonne Orji
How successful you find Malcolm D. Lee’s latest comedic romp Night School depends on how successful you rate both Lee and starring lead Kevin Hart’s previous outings.
With the exception, perhaps, of his 1999 debut film, The Best Man, Lee makes movies that go down easy and aim more for an immediacy of feeling and event than any type of subtlety in terms of story or character (smash cut to 2002’s Undercover Brother). Hart’s comedic chops are dependable almost to the point of monotony, often relying on a frenzied outpouring of self-deprecation, rapid-fire improvisation and physical comedy. Add in Tiffany Haddish, the breakout star of Lee’s 2017 summer smash Girls Trip, and a master of improvisation in her own right, and Night School should be a slam dunk in terms of its crowd-pleasing aims.
Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a BBQ grill salesman living beyond his means in order to impress his successful girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). When an ill-fated propane leak causes his workplace to explode (in a manner that is as random as it is forgettable), Walker is offered a job as a financial analyst – the one condition being that he, a high-school dropout, must attain his GED. Enter night school. Charged with a cohort of adult misfits, overworked and underpaid Carrie Carter (Haddish) leads her class with a no-nonsense attitude, much to the chagrin of Walker, who tries to cut corners with his work just as much as he tries to keep his late-night education a secret from Lisa.
This story is as meandering as it seems. For a film with six credited writers (including Hart himself), Night School has a mess of a plot. Rife with short cuts and lazy storytelling, the film fails to match the level of talent it has at its disposal. Hart and Haddish have an electric chemistry when they’re given the opportunity to operate at full blast (an in-car yelling match ends with Haddish referring to Hart as “a burnt leprechaun”). The only problem is that the film seems content to flatten their dynamism with its contrived emotive moments and lip-service to any type of real story development. And with a film where the cast is the only thing that truly works, this is a frustrating dilemma.
Haddish is given little to work with – a fact that is almost criminal considering how her rising star power over the past year is almost entirely indebted to her charisma and disarming slapstick style. In many ways, she is the perfect pairing to Hart, and yet the film glosses over this wealth of talent in favour of a Hart-heavy presence. (The film insists on overutilizing a flat-toned Echikunwoke while Insecure’s Yvonne Orji, cast in the role of Lisa’s chronically unimpressed friend Maya, is literally standing right there.) SNL’s Taran Killam is likewise given a one-note presence – much like Girls Trip’s publicist Elizabeth (Kate Walsh), Killam’s role as school principal and Teddy’s childhood nemesis relies on tone-deaf whiteness played for laughs. The difference here is that, unlike Girls Trip’s continued returns to Walsh for new and unexpected parodies of white-woman follies, Killam’s single gag is his adoption of a blaccent (for the uninitiated, a “black accent”), and nothing else, repeatedly.
Thankfully, the comedians working here can be stifled only so much by Lee’s lacklustre direction and Hart and Co.’s first-draft writing. For every narrative misfire, there is a new laugh or gag – however unfortunate it is that the film clearly wants to stick to its script rather than going with the highly skilled improvisers it has at hand. All said and done, with this amount of talent it should be impossible for a film such as Night School to be unfunny in any way – especially when you’re given a chance to see Hart get belted by Haddish while wearing a Christian-themed chicken mascot costume. So if you can get through this headache of a script and Lee’s unwavering commitment to choreographed dance numbers, there are some funny times in store.