The question of those stereotypes was initially raised at Cohen’s post-screening Q&A at SXSW, which included such audience comments as, “As a fellow Jew, I’ve got to say that this film seemed as racist as fuck.” In the Hitfix interview, Hart dodges the racism question entirely, instead insisting, “Here’s the thing, man, at the end of the day, a critic’s job is to critique. I don’t think I’ve done one project that’s gotten good critic reviews, not one. And if you feed into that as an actor or an actress, you’re in the wrong game. That’s their job. This is a comedy.” Um, three problems: 1. the comment at SXSW came from an audience member, not a critic; 2. Hart’s other, lousy movies have nothing to do with this conversation; and 3. according to Rotten Tomatoes, several Hart vehicles have “gotten good critic reviews,” including About Last Night, Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain, and Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain.
And Ferrell doesn’t exactly shoot straight on this point either. Of the SXSW Q&A, he says, “That’s a situation that was completely misrepresented. Someone who made that comment also followed up by saying, I thought it was hysterical.” Fair enough! People tend to be super-complimentary in festival Q&As, especially in Austin. Here’s where it gets sticky: Ferrell continues, “It played to a kind of standing ovation-type reaction,” to which Hart interjects, “Not kind of — it did!” And they’re right. They did get a standing ovation at SXSW — before the movie played. The ovation was for the two stars, doing a big, boombox-blasting entrance, with Ferrell literally prodding the audience, “Let’s get up! C’mon now!” and the two of them insisting the entire crowd get on their feet (“Are they up?” asked Hart, peering into the balcony) before starting the show.
Now, what’s tricky about throwing the blanket of homophobia over Get Hard’s premise is that it isn’t a simple case of the “gay panic = comedy” or “acting gay = comedy” equation that makes movies like Boat Trip, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and even (to a lesser degree) 22 Jump Street so troubling. What Ferrell’s James is so terrified of encountering in prison isn’t gay sex, it’s male-on-male rape. Now, whether that’s a juicy, can’t-miss premise for a studio comedy in 2015, I’ll leave up to you.
Where the movie gets into trouble is in the soon-to-be notorious “gay brunch” sequence. After several days of trying and failing to toughen up James, Darnell finally gives up, takes him to a brunch spot in West Hollywood, and informs him, “You are going to have to learn to suck dick.” James goes into the men’s room with a nameless gay dude (poor Matt Walsh, from the UCB and Veep , who deserves better than this) and spends the following high-larious sequence trying to force himself to perform oral sex, a chore he ultimately deems impossibly gag-worthy.
It’s hard to say what’s more irritating here: the overall “ew, gay dudes, grossssss” vibe of the bathroom business (complete with big-laugh cutaways of Walsh’s floppy, flaccid member), or the conversation between Darnell, waiting out at the table, and the guy who tries to pick him up, who he’s later seen FaceTiming with, as if they’re best buddies now. It’s a touch that screams tacked-on, play-it-safe studio note: “They won’t be able to say the scene’s homophobic if he makes a gay friend!!”
Pressed on these touches, Ferrell told Hitfix, “The premise of the movie is addressing the fears that someone may have going into prison. We didn’t come up with those fears. They’re just a societal norm. So, uh, that’s where the comedy comes from.” He’s correct — to a point. The problem is, comedy (or, at least, good comedy) can come from there, but it can’t just stop at pointing out a “societal norm”; it has to have something to say about it, to subvert it, or to satirize those who perpetuate that norm or believe in it. Offensive and/or controversial topics can live within good comedy; hell, that’s how Mel Brooks built a career. Director/co-writer Cohen has built funny movies out of controversial building blocks before (he co-wrote Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy), but all he manages to do here, in matters of both race and sex, is point and laugh.
Strangely, in attempting to defend the movie, Hart ends up defining the problem. “I said to myself, ‘this is funny,’” he tells Virtel. “And at the end of the day, funny is funny regardless of what area it’s coming from.” But the problem is that Get Hard, contrary to Hart’s defense, isn’t funny; it just doesn’t work, and if it did, no one would mind much how it got those laughs. But “what area it’s coming from” becomes part of that equation, because the people who made it didn’t bother to think through what they were satirizing, what they wanted to say, or how they wanted to say it. What they left us with was something obvious, lazy, tone-deaf, and mean-spirited — and that, friends, is hard to laugh at.
Get Hard is out Friday.