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When Orange Calls for Black: The Racial and Sexual Impotence of ‘Get Hard.’ Plus: Al Pacino Is Great Again!

The Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy starts out strong, but never subverts its stereotype-ridden premise. Also: ‘Danny Collins’ delivers pure old-fashioned entertainment.

The first 15 minutes of Get Hard set the stage for a nutty social farce like Trading Places. Will Ferrell plays James King, a senior hedge fund manager with a Los Angeles palace and a sexy young fiancée. Kevin Hart is Darnell, the guy who runs the parking garage beneath James’s office building. One afternoon, Darnell taps on James’s car window to get his attention and give him the keys, and James lets out a long, frightened scream. He doesn’t bother to turn around to see who it is. He doesn’t have to. The movie has so perfectly set up James’s affluent white aloofness that it’s clear that the mere prospect of contact with a nonwhite person (Darnell is black) would terrify him.

In the same scene, Darnell asks James to consider buying a lifetime platinum membership to the struggling car wash Darnell operates. It costs $30,000. James demurs. Instead, he gives Darnell a lecture about investing. In a matter of years, James could turn that money into $3 million. Moreover, unlike Darnell, he didn’t ask for handouts to get where he is. (He simply accepted them from his father, but never mind.) The point is: Why doesn’t Darnell work harder to get where he wants to go? An exchange like this is such a classic talking (down) point between the classes (and by extension between races) that the movie can afford to keep its barely straight face. We’re getting the joke. It helps that the person visible in Ferrell’s caricature suggests a refurbished device whose original software was unsuccessfully wiped. Only loosely is James an asshole.

So when the big dogs at his firm — including his future father-in-law, played by Craig T. Nelson, and Greg Germann as house counsel — frame him for fraud and embezzlement, you feel for him. And the movie taps into the public’s outrage over economic inequality. With all of Ferrell’s sponge-haired, oafish, ersatz innocence, James insists that he intends to fight the charges against him. But at trial, the judge throws the book at him: 10 years at San Quentin. It’s meant to be a message to the whole financial world. Indeed, victims bilked by James’s firm show up after the trial and bang on his Town Car. The sentence includes a month to prepare for prison. The movie strikes a cathartic balance between absurdity and some kind of injustice. In a montage, you see Ferrell in a 1 percenter’s despair. One very funny shot has him weeping, trying to drink a glass of red while vibrating in a recliner. His accounts are frozen. His sexy fiancée (Alison Brie, pampered but sharp) leaves him. He puts on a wig and mustache and tries to flee.

These scenes are all so well done, so tasting of ill-gotten upper-crustiness, that you want to know where the rest of this movie is going. But if you’re at Get Hard, you probably already know: racial-stereotype reinforcement. Darnell finds James stuffed in the trunk of a car in the office garage (James was on the run). James explains his situation. Darnell already knows. James presumes Darnell can relate, because Darnell is black and is working this menial job and, according to James, one in three black American men goes to prison. So, statistically speaking, isn’t Darnell likely to be an ex-con? Darnell takes umbrage, in that catching-the–Holy Spirit way that is Hart’s specialty. He summons for James a fulminating pantomime of the endless sex that awaits James behind bars. James offers Darnell $30,000 for a crash course in how to avoid it.

Even with that ridiculous premise declared, you’re intrigued. In the next scene, we’re at Darnell’s for the first time, where his wife, Rita (Edwina Findley Dickerson, as good as Brie but with a lot less to do), is expressing disbelief about Darnell’s plan. “What do you know about prison?” she asks. Attempting to act tough, he calls her a bitch, and she hauls off and smacks him. But as the movie proceeds, the intrigue dissipates. Darnell calls a cousin for tips and tells James the plot of Boyz n the Hood as if it were the story of his life. The prison school Darnell concocts turns James’s mansion into a makeshift maximum-security facility built by James’s Latin staff, played by some funny actors who are only barely allowed in on the jokes. One of the house’s studies becomes James’s cell. One of the tennis courts turns into a prison yard.

The school stuff is loaded with dismaying coursework featuring scores of rape jokes and culminating in a prison-yard scenario in which Ferrell is bombarded by Hart’s impersonations of three inmate archetypes: gangsta, cholo, fairy. Get Hard turns out to be a far cry from something like Trading Places or even the clever first half of the class-insurrection comedy of Tower Heist. Its freewheeling street-approved tourism is closer to the white-dude-in-the-hood flagrancy of Jamie Kennedy as a “wanksta” in Malibu’s Most Wanted, which is a slightly more tolerable piece of racial cynicism. Trading Places is the kind of white-liberal fantasy that brought us Diff’rent Strokes and Webster, but it also had a fizzy, distrusting intelligence that Get Hard lacks.

The problem with this movie is that you keep waiting for it to turn the premise and its presumptions upside down, but it never gets even part of the way there. The writing doesn’t think much of Darnell. Compared with James, he has no talent or skill. (He’s not even a good impostor ex-convict.) We learn about James’s educational background and peers; it’s for laughs, but it’s still information that tells you who this guy is. Despite his being framed and convicted, James has a way with math and money. We see him apply it. What, ultimately, is Darnell good at? Ferrell and Hart share this movie, but the writing for them is hardly equal. I don’t know what Hart is supposed to be playing. He’s just the industry’s idea of A Black Person. Just about all the nonwhite workers we see work for James. Darnell’s wife, Rita, is a nurse, but the only time we hear about her work is after James gets himself a gross boo-boo.

The movie is actually presenting Darnell as the ambitionless peon James presumes him to be. By the time he takes James to see his ex-con, gangsta cousin, Russell (T.I.), for a possible ride-along drive-by, Darnell seems smart only compared to the dummies in Russell’s crew. The one crime-free black male has to pretend to be bad to prevent a good white guy from having worse things happen to him — and all for our entertainment. More might be demanded of this movie if Jamie Foxx were playing James. But that movie would never get made. The script is credited to the movie’s director, Etan Cohen, as well as to Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, both of whom are the executive producers for Comedy Central’s absurdist racial kaleidoscope of a sketch show, Key & Peele. (All of whom are white.)

The smart, class-warfare setup erodes into another helping of sexually paranoid bromance, one chafed by the quills of race and typical of Ferrell’s lack of intra-male boundaries. Most of Darnell’s personal training involves James’s being readied to defend against assault. He dispatches James to fight strangers, as some people might break in a pit bull. He lets James use him as a barbell to do bench presses. But he also takes James to solicit blow jobs at “L.A.’s flirtiest gay brunch.” While James is in a bathroom stall falling into a stranger’s crotch, Darnell is back in the garden getting picked up by a guy (T.J. Jagodowski) who won’t take no for an answer.

The scene manages split-level comedy — it’s both homophobic and homo-curious in a way that’s disorienting yet fascinating. Hart isn’t playing contempt at that gay brunch. He’s insulted because the guy isn’t as good-looking as Darnell believes himself to be. But his exasperation vaguely pays off four or five scenes later, in a tacked-on moment that reminds you, once again, that Hart can be a breathtakingly tender star. When James embraces Darnell and tells him he got hard thinking about him, you’re surprised the double entendre doesn’t make Hart recoil. Ferrell says it over and over, and every time, little Hart gets a bit more lost in Ferrell’s big embrace.

It all points toward an inauthentic but perversely warm half-step forward for so-called bromance, an advance that makes you wonder whether the movies will figure out, as the country as a whole currently is, how to be comfortable about homosexuality before achieving comfort with race. This movie opens the same week that HBO announced that it won’t renew Looking, its slow-burning romantic comedy about the lives of actual gay men. The ratings were poor. But when you’re seeing Ferrell and Hart feeling on each other and all but falling in love, the impending absence of that show — and its reality — stings. Get Hard knows how to screw around. But when it comes to anything more, it lacks the balls to fuck.

♦♦♦

danny-collins-hpDanny Collins Productions

There’s a kind of modest American comedy that’s so keenly done that you don’t bother resisting. All the details feel exactly right for that particular story and those characters. It just works. Right away, you can tell that Danny Collins is working. The editing and camerawork establish an easy storytelling rhythm. There’s wit in the writing. The actors are alert and into their roles. There’s not a lot going on, and that turns out to be to its advantage. It keeps surprising you.

In the opening sequence, a pop singer named Danny Collins (Al Pacino), who’s been very famous for four decades, has just finished punching the air at another ecstatically sold-out show. As he barely sings his biggest hit, he sways his old bones back and forth like a Margaritaville Jolly Roger. A quick cut backstage catches him looking cadaverous. He’s drunk, coked up, and girdled into his black pants and matching open shirt. Revelers cavort in his dressing room, but not with him. Oh no, I thought, here comes one of those bottoming-out musical dramas.

But then Danny’s forever-manager (Christopher Plummer) gives him an early birthday present: a framed handwritten letter that John Lennon wrote to him in the early 1970s that Danny never received. (The movie takes the premise from a similar letter that Lennon actually did write to a young British folksinger named Steve Tilston.) Danny is floored. It gets him thinking about what might have been. It makes him feel a bit like a fraud.

He catches his latest wife cheating on him in the master bedroom of his gated Los Angeles fortress and decides to cancel his lucrative tour and head to New Jersey. The plan is to reintroduce himself to a grown son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who really, really doesn’t want to see Danny. He makes his base of operations a Hilton in someplace called Woodcliff Lake, where he passes out compliments to the dazzled staff. “Great face,” he exclaims to Nicky, the young valet (Josh Peck). With the hotel manager, Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), Danny commits to a regimen of high-intensity flattery. He makes Pepé Le Pew look like Bartleby the Scrivener. “While you’re checking me in,” he says, “I’ll be checking you out.” He lays it on thick. She scrapes it off.

On both the romantic and paternal fronts, Danny’s got his work cut out for him. Musically, too. It’s been 30 years since he last wrote a new song, but he can’t sing the old ones anymore. That big hit is something called “Hey Baby Doll,” and the chorus is a lawsuit away from “Sweet Caroline” — Splenda to Neil Diamond’s sugar. To attempt to change that, Danny ships a giant Steinway to his hotel suite and gets to work on what turns out to be a pretty good mood-color ballad (composed, in fact, by Ryan Adams).

I love that Danny knows who he is. He doesn’t quit abusing substances. He just cuts cocaine out of his life, the way some people do carbs. He likes being a famous rock star. He loves the clothes, especially the shirts he can open to the middle of his chest so that you can see the crucifix he keeps on a necklace. Even when he’s sitting in the hotel bar after another tough day with Tom, looking sunk, he’s unsinkable. Mary walks into the bar to ask him how she should handle a drunken celebrity and ends up spending the night drinking and commiserating alongside him. Who wouldn’t?

Danny Collins is the sort of thing that, 25 or 30 years ago, would’ve come out every week: a low-budget, low-stakes excuse for good actors to have some fun with a smart director and script (by Dan Fogelman, who wrote the busy, AARP-centric comedy Last Vegas). Now it’s such a rarity — Pacino and Bening just relaxing together, charming each other, being legitimately funny but also versions of themselves — that the sheer entertainment of it brings a tear to your eyes. Fogelman gives most of the scenes a huge emotional brightness. There’s a shot at Danny’s surprise party that pans across a line of aged former showbiz guys staring agog at some nubile woman. The camera keeps going until it finds Danny in a doorway doing the same thing. The movie is full of little, wonderful touches like that, including the very last shot.

All of the actors are good, even Jennifer Garner, as Samantha, Tom’s pregnant, semi-tough wife. She doesn’t go for too much, which is perfect, since she doesn’t need to. Neither does Plummer, who gets snobbily bent out of shape by all of this New Jersey business. Tom and Samantha have a focus-challenged kid named Hope who’s played by Giselle Eisenberg, a child actor but a miracle of one; she’s got comic timing, makes funny faces, and has real chemistry with Pacino.

But everybody here has that, especially Bening, who somehow finds a way to give the same clenched smile about 20 different meanings. It’s exciting to see a brilliant actor invent a character by thinking about what that woman does for work. Bening gets to reinvent customer service as a sterling personality trait. You get why she lowers her guard for this leathered, mildly obnoxious man, too: Pacino’s really enjoying himself.

Danny is miserable, but you can sense, immediately, that Pacino isn’t playing misery. The bottom that Danny has hit is spiritual. He needs to detox his soul. Pacino makes his way through this movie granting wishes and tossing out treats like a combination used-car salesman and leprechaun. It’s been years since he’s been this relaxed in a movie. You don’t care that he can’t make rock megastardom seem possible. Pacino makes himself seem plausible as a movie star again. Forget Oscars. That deserves a toss of your underwear.

This post has been updated to correct two errors: The platinum membership offered to Ferrell’s character was a lifetime one, not an annual one, and Ferrell’s response about the money he’d have otherwise refers to a sum of $3 million, not $30 million.