Will Ferrell seems to be one of those actors most people either love or hate. I say that because I rarely find other people with me in the middle ground when it comes to Ferrell. There are films of his that I thoroughly appreciate (Anchorman) and films I wish I’d never seen (Anchorman 2). But I can’t think of a Will Ferrell film I’ve been more discomforted by than Get Hard, which takes what could be a genuinely interesting concept and mars it with the laziest of jokes. And by lazy, I mean cheap shots that are with an alarming frequency homophobic.
It’s a shame, coming not just from the potent teaming of Ferrell and Kevin Hart, but the directing debut of Etan Cohen, the screenwriter responsible for Tropic Thunder‘s controversial “Robert Downer Jr. in permanent blackface” storyline. In that film, the humor comes from the ridiculousness of an actor permanently transforming himself through blackface to land a role (and an Oscar). Imagine, instead, that the humor tried to come from the blackface itself. Or, going to a more classic example, look at how Blazing Saddles used racial epithets not to land laughs, but to make fun of the racists saying the epithets. Now imagine it where the laughs are supposed to come from the words themselves.
There’s a belief among some comedians, and some fans of comedy, that no subject matter should be off-limits to a comedian. I get the basic concept, and that’s what it is: basic. It lacks nuance. There are plenty of subjects that, only when approached the right way, can work as sources of comedy. For some of these more potentially controversial subjects, like race and rape, the difference between being effective and offensive comes from whoever’s the target. A joke at a rape victim’s expense? Not even remotely funny. A joke that’s aimed at the perpetrator, or society at large? Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is generating all sorts of positive buzz for that.
Since I’ve avoided a plot summary up until this point, here it is in brief: Get Hard focuses on James King (Ferrell), a genius in his profession who’s a complete idiot in every other facet of his life. When he’s framed for insider trading and other financial crimes, he turns down a plea deal, believing that his innocence can be proven in court. Instead, he’s convicted, and the judge imposes the maximum sentence: ten years in a maximum security penitentiary. With 30 days to get his affairs in order, James turns to Darnell (Hart), who he assumes has been in prison, to teach him how to prepare for time behind bars.
Up until this point, the film actually works overall. I can imagine a better version of this film keeping everything before this point intact, and working spectacularly. But from this point on, Get Hard turns into a series of unfunny jokes predicated on homosexuality, prison rape and race.
Darnell’s initial approach is to try to get James to defend himself. When that (quickly) doesn’t work, Darnell decides the best approach is to tell James, “You are going to have to learn to suck dick.” The film follows through with this, in a lengthy scene where James is directed to pick up a guy and blow him in the bathroom. The film takes a few minutes showing James’ reactions to attempting this, which end with him weeping with the man’s penis resting on his face.
And that’s just one scene. A lot of the film’s humor from this point on leans on the idea that gay sex is gross. Here’s the thing: as a gay man, I realize that gay sex is not for everyone, just like hetero sex is not something I’m particularly eager to try. There’s a fine line, though, between a simple preference and a repeated insistence on this other thing being so horrible. And let’s keep in mind: this is where the film focuses on for fear. Not from the general violence that can happen in prison. Not from the racism that permeates the prison system. Not even from the fear of rape. From sucking a dick. That’s the part of prison that’s most feared here. And, judging from the audience in my screening of the film, the scene I described above will generate some of the loudest laughs. It’s a shame.