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Written and directed by Etan Coen – no, not he of the Coen Bros ilk – Get Hard left me questioning whether a mainstream comedy could deal with – and more importantly make fun of – race relationships and prison yard homosexuality without being intrinsically racist or homophobic. The answer is trickier than you might think. The liberal in me got tense around Get Hard‘s stereotypical depictions of “black people doing black people things” – hanging on stoops, twerkin’ – and “gay people doing gay people things” – the ever-delightful pairing of brunch and BJs.

But Coen’s openly mocking tone makes room for a kind of almost introspective commentary on racial prejudice and the touchy nature of how we talk about race in 2015. That commentary is complimented by some completely off-color and borderline mean-spirited material that threatens to steer the movie’s tone towards an offensive streak, losing some credibility along the way and along with it, some comic zing. But in the end, Get Hard is a comedy and the big question behind any comedy is: did it make me laugh? In this case, sure.

In a slightly less bombastic role than his last few, Will Ferrell plays successful hedge fund manager James King, a happy-go-lucky, ignorantly blissful millionaire. Nailed for fraud that he swears he didn’t commit, King is sentenced to 30 years in San Quentin, a maximum security prison renown for its high ratio of raped-to-not-raped inmates. Business mentor and recent partner Martin (Craig T. Nelson) vows to get his top lawyers on the job but King’s life is already falling to pieces as his gold-digging wife/Martin’s daughter Alissa (Alison Brie) has nixed King’s attempt to run away together and has instead run for the hills.

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Enter car cleaning professional Darnell (Kevin Hart), a struggling husband and father in desperate need of $30,000 so that he can move his family out of their “gangbangin'” neighborhood to a school district where their daughter won’t need to reach her education through a metal detector. In the past, King and Darnell’s relationship has been strained to say the least – when Darnell raps on King’s window to return his keys, King cowers in fear, offering up everything he has. Presumably because Darnell is black and wearing a hoodie at the time.

Having very much a not A1 day, King propositions Darnell: since you’ve been to prison, teach me the ropes so I don’t a.) die and, more importantly, b.) don’t get raped. Darnell however has never been to prison. He’s just black. Using his risk analysis background, King asserts, black men have a 30% chance of being incarcerated so its safe to assume that every black male has spent time in the big house. His assertion is dumbed down to an ugly pizza analogy that, though aiming for laughs, is cringe-worthy, off-base and really sucks the air out of the room. Get Hard then inexplicably spends a bulk of the run time trying to atone for blatantly racist assertions such as these.

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A lot of the comedy to follow deals with simulated situations in which King must learn to “get hard”. He pathetically learns to “keagle” shanks, mad dog (or, in his case, sad dog) and fend off incoming stabbings but it’s clear to Darnell that King’s progress is minimal and he best learn to polish a knob if he wants to get through his sentence alive. Ferrell’s willingness to go to any lengths for a laugh certainly lends Get Hard a kind of childish incredulity even when there’s a prosthetic penis jabbing at his face. You want to credit it for its attempts to discuss race and “unbecoming” prison mentalities somewhat meaningfully but feel like the material is mostly in the hands of a child. A child that thinks blowjobs are just the ickiest thing to ever exist. At times, that benefits the laugh percentage, especially when Ferrell and Hart work off of each other, but at other moments, it feels stiff, forced or just plain out of place.

It’s not that Get Hard is unfunny so much I would rather have seen the inspired pairing of Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart deal with issues other than race and rape. With Ferrell playing the big, goofy character and Hart taking on a more reined-in straight man, the two shine in their shared scenes, offering a comedic duo that I would pay to see more of. Unfortunately, the material they’re working with is always a two-step behind their talents and, though often worthy of a chuckle, makes some unfortunately vulgar turns along the way. Asinine prejudices aside, Get Hard‘s cockananny will assuredly summon some laughs for Ferrell and Hart fans.

C

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