Despite how broad and silly they are, Will Ferrell's movies often have a stealth political side to them. When he works with his longtime creative partner, director and co-writer Adam McKay, he usually manages to address current events in a way that's pointed without being preachy. Everybody loves Anchorman because of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights because of Ricky Bobby and The Other Guys because of its skewering of cop-movie tropes, but all the while Ferrell is smuggling in messages about, respectively, gender equality in the workplace, American exceptionalism, and the 2008 financial crisis. It's telling that the one time he tried to be more overt with his politics—his one-man George W. Bush show, You're Welcome America—it was forced, obvious, and, most importantly, not very funny. On the whole, Ferrell's comedy works better when its themes are subtle.
In Get Hard, nothing is subtle. The most brazenly topical movie of Ferrell's career, Get Hard has a story that's co-credited to McKay, but otherwise Ferrell's partner is nowhere to be found in this misguided hand grenade of a political comedy. Whether or not that's where the blame can be laid, Get Hard wants to be a brash, unapologetic look at race and class but only wrings a few laughs from those topics, mostly spending its time floundering around in a dumb plot with obvious characters. Some critics have accused Get Hard of being insensitive and offensive to its gay and minority characters. In all honesty, I think it's more guilty of having poor comedic instincts than it is of being genuinely malicious.
Tapping into America's anti-1% sentiment, Get Hard (which was directed and co-written by Etan Cohen) stars Ferrell as James King, one of the rich, powerful heads of a Los Angeles brokerage firm. About to marry the gorgeous, materialistic Alissa (Alison Brie), daughter of the big boss (Craig T. Nelson) who's about to promote him to partner, James has a pretty sweet life. But then, he's charged with insider trading and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin, though he professes his innocence. With only 30 days of freedom left and scared of what will happen to a silver-spooner in the slammer, James solicits the help of Darnell (Kevin Hart), a good dude who runs a struggling car wash. Assuming Darnell must have gone to jail at some point—he's black, right?—James offers to pay him a large sum to school him in the ways of prison survival. Darnell has never even been given a speeding ticket, but he decides to play along with James's assumptions, pretending to be a thug since his family needs the money.
The setup is there for a sharp comedy about race relations and cultural assumptions, a 48 Hrs. for a new era. But for each smart choice the movie makes—Darnell is actually a little insecure about his blackness because he's not as "hard" as some of the guys he grew up with—Get Hard offers about five dumb ones. The most prominent at the get-go is that James hasn't done anything illegal and that, all in all, he's not a bad person except for his prejudices against the less-fortunate, which to him is everyone. If the R-rated Get Hard really wanted to be as edgy as it aspires to be, James would be a real sonuvabitch, the sort of callous, greedy Wall Street type that treats other people's money like some big game. But instead, Ferrell plays him like an amiable, dopey chap who's just a little out of touch. Watching Get Hard, we never think James deserves his comeuppance, and so his prison panic doesn't have much comic sting to it.
The reason why James is so scared about going to San Quentin, of course, is that he's terrified of being raped. And this brings us to Get Hard's other big misfire. When the film premiered at South by Southwest, critics savaged it for its apparent homophobia. During Get Hard, Darnell frightens James with the prospect of being sodomized by a lot of big, strong, mean prisoners if he doesn't toughen up. At first, that means teaching James lessons in "hardness," which can be funny since Darnell himself isn't all that traditionally "hard"—they're both playing dress-up in cultural ideas about what makes someone a badass. But Get Hard gets into dicier terrain when Darnell, frustrated by how soft James is, suggests instead that he, in the parlance of the film, learn how to suck a dick. This kickstarts a would-be comedic sequence in which the two straight men go to a popular gay L.A. hangout so that James can proposition a random stranger (Matt Walsh) and suggest giving him a blowjob.
I think it's shortsighted to assume that certain scenarios couldn't possibly be funny. But the problem with Get Hard's gay panic is that it doesn't make a clear enough distinction between the characters' discomfort with homosexuality and the noxious idea that gay sex is objectively worth mocking. Again, if James was a blue-blooded cretin snob, then the joke would be on him, his bigotry shockingly confronted and his uptightness played for laughs. But that's not how it plays in Get Hard. Television shows from the 1990s like Seinfeld ("The Outing") or The Simpsons ("Homer's Phobia") have figured out how to skewer straight people's ignorance in a shorter time frame and with more content restrictions than Get Hard has to face, and yet they're more incisive and funnier than anything Ferrell and his crew manage to produce here.
Everywhere Get Hard goes, it willingly barrels headfirst into racial or gender stereotypes. Darnell's cousin (played by T.I.) has been to prison, and he and his posse live in Crenshaw, one of L.A.'s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods, which is the film's polite code for he's a "real" black man. But here or elsewhere in the film, like when James inexplicably tries infiltrating a white-supremacist gang so he can be protected in prison, the one-note portrayals don't mock the cultural assumptions but simply perpetuate them.
Even the stars' performances add to the problem. Ferrell, dialing it down from his Anchorman/Talladega Nights brand of boisterous buffoonery, doesn't bring any angle to his lame ol' white guy character, and Hart does his usual incensed-guy-with-Napoleon-complex routine, but without the freshness it once had. They're themselves stereotypes of white and black movie characters, but the filmmakers don't do enough to spoof the clichés they're presenting. Some of our greatest thinkers, Spinal Tap, once observed that it can be such a fine line between stupid and clever. Get Hard dances right past that line and sets up permanent lodging in moronic. That doesn't make the film evil, just unfortunate.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.