If you’re disturbed by white-collar crime, but not quite as disturbed as you are by gay sex, then congratulations: You might possess just the right combo of social conscience and unexamined homophobia needed to fully enjoy “Get Hard.” Not even two of America’s most reliable funnymen can eke consistent laughs out of this sloppy odd-couple comedy about a wrongly convicted millionaire (Will Ferrell) who asks the nearest black guy (Kevin Hart) to toughen him up in preparation for a decade behind bars — a premise that allows for a few timely jabs at racial oppression and class disparity, though it’s ultimately undone by some of the ugliest gay-panic humor to befoul a studio release in recent memory. None of this will likely matter a whit to Ferrell’s and Hart’s fan bases, which are probably big enough to keep “Get Hard” from going too soft commercially.
“Success is a mountain,” filthy-rich hedge-fund manager James (Ferrell) is fond of declaring, and it would appear that he has reached the summit. He shares his palatial Bel Air digs with his beautiful, spoiled fiancee (Alison Brie); meanwhile, his boss (Craig T. Nelson), who also happens to be his future father-in-law, has just made him a partner in the firm. One of the movie’s better jokes is that a wealthy, entitled white man in James’s position will automatically assume the worst of a black man in a hoodie; that guy would be Darnell (Hart), a hard-working small-business owner who’s trying to save up the $30,000 he needs to start his own car wash, in hopes of earning a better living for himself, his wife (Edwina Findley) and their young daughter (Ariana Neal).
As scripted by director Etan Cohen (who shared writing duties with “Key and Peele” showrunners Jay Martel and Ian Roberts), the movie’s opening scenes offer an appreciably scathing vision of One Percent excess, complete with a Latino gardener (Erick Chavarria) who scowls behind James’s (frequently naked) back. By contrast, Darnell and his family enjoy a cramped but cozy existence in Crenshaw, where his daughter passes through metal detectors every day on her way to class. But soon the tables are turned, as James is arrested on charges of securities fraud and embezzlement; convinced of his innocence, he turns down a plea bargain and winds up sentenced to 10 years in maximum-security prison.
Abandoned by his fiancee and eventually her father, and with only a month to go before he heads to San Quentin, James turns to Darnell for help; after all, given the statistic that one in three African-American men will be thrown in jail during his lifetime, surely his one black friend must know a thing or two about what it’s like behind bars. And so, with a promise of $30,000 for his services, Darnell willingly pretends to be an ex-con and spend the next month teaching James to bulk up and become as fierce and intimidating as possible. Because everyone knows what happens to flabby, defenseless men who go to prison — and just in case you don’t know, rest assured that “Get Hard” will disabuse you of your ignorance and then some.
“You need to suck a d—,” Darnell tells James, preparing him for the reality that life in prison will be all rape, all the time, and paving the way for the movie’s most objectionable scene. There are some schools of thought, of course, which might contend that nothing could be funnier than the sight of Will Ferrell falling to his knees in a toilet stall and getting slapped in the face with another dude’s junk, and they may well have a point. But what makes this particular sequence so noxious isn’t just the familiar specter of gay panic, which for better and for worse has become a pillar of American screen comedy. It’s the coy, cynical disgust with which the scene is framed, featuring just enough genital exposure (it might have been spliced in by Tyler Durden) to presumably freak out the target audience without jeopardizing the R rating. The movie tries to strike a tolerant pose after the fact, but it’s a weak ruse; frankly, the virtual-reality sodomy in the recent “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” was handled in more enlightened fashion.
There’s a similar crudeness to the recurring gag in which James stashes sharp objects up his rectum, or the extended sequence in which Darnell gives James a crash course in prison-yard sociology, which requires that Hart rattle off one thuggish ethnic impersonation after another. Still, the movie’s racial humor is a bit harder to write off than its sexual politics, even if the embarrassing blunders and the almost accidental insights seem to go hand-in-hand: When James dresses up as Lil’ Wayne for a crucial protection meeting with Darnell’s gangleader cousin (charismatic rapper-actor Tip “T.I.” Harris), you’re not sure whether to nod approvingly at the critique of cultural misappropriation, or to shake your head when a black guy mistakes a reference to “Balzac” for “ball sac.”
A setpiece in which our heroes wind up raiding a lair of white supremacists feels as pointless and toothless as the movie’s limp endgame, in which Darnell and James go on a numbskull quest to prove the latter’s innocence. Whatever one makes of “Get Hard’s” contribution to our ongoing national debate about race, class and sexuality, there’s no denying that too much of it simply feels cheap, flailing and tired: First-time feature director Cohen mostly leaves Ferrell and Hart to their rambunctious devices, and they manage a vigorous, affectionate chemistry that simply cries out for a smarter, less objectionable vehicle. It really shouldn’t be this hard.