You expect a movie starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish to have its share of highly combative verbal fireworks. And given that “Night School” was directed by Malcolm D. Lee, whose last picture, the deliriously raunchy and spirited “Girls Trip,” showcased Haddish as a one-woman comic hurricane (her character was a gale force of pithy obscene truth-telling), you’re more than primed to sit back and watch the fusillade of low-down insults fly. The first time Hart and Haddish share a scene, that’s just what happens. They pull up to a stoplight in separate convertibles, and he rags on her for being such a loudmouth, and she comes back at him, and the lines get tossed like kitchen crockery hitting the walls, and around the time she assaults him with the word “leprechaun” the two devolve into literal snarls. If this is what vandalistic screwball banter sounds like in 2018, I’m all for it.
But it doesn’t take long for the antic warfare of “Night School” to get turned down from 11. A lot of movies you’d think would be rated R — like action or horror — frequently end up with a PG-13 rating, because the studio in question thinks that’s more commercial. In the case of a movie like “Night School,” the softer rating really hurts. It determines a lot of the tone: more goofy than nasty, with lines that don’t shock the way they could. (Imagine “Girls Trip” as a PG-13 movie, and you’d have a much lesser comedy.) A movie starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish shouldn’t leave you with the lingering sensation that its concept would have worked a lot better on the small screen.
Hart’s Teddy Walker is someone you might call a hustler, except that he isn’t fooling anyone. He’s a high-school dropout who works as a salesman hawking backyard barbecue grills, and he’s dating a willowy design executive, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who’s generous enough not to notice that she’s out of his league. Teddy is all set to take over the store he works at, but one desperate marriage proposal and horrendous gas explosion later, his career is running on fumes. So he agrees to study — on the down-low — for his GED exam (after having bailed on his SATs 17 years ago), by taking a night course at his old high school. Haddish is the teacher, Carrie, who offers up an entertaining quota of verbal bitch-slaps but is basically a straight-shooter who’s there to keep the class in line.
The principal, Stuart (Taran Killam), is Teddy’s old nemesis, whose ickiness is defined by the fact that he’s a tight-ass white dude who likes to assert his power by saying things in “black” dialect like “this is mah house.” (The way he keeps getting called on it is a good joke.) Teddy’s classmates, meanwhile, are a wacked collection of losers and flakes, and it doesn’t take long for the movie to turn into a mid-life “Welcome Back, Kotter” for the age of the gig economy.
A few of the actors are funny, though most of them come off as characters recruited from different comedy sketches; maybe that’s a result of the fact that the film has six credited screenwriters. Mary Lynn Rajskub plays Theresa, the mother of three small kids trying to convince herself she loves her life of drudgery, as the sneakiest of mom nerds, and Romany Malco has a space-shot hilarity as a player mired in mystic conspiracy theory. Rob Riggle is the most antic of square enthusiastic dorks. When they’re in class together, the actors get a rhythm going.
“Night School,” unfortunately, is an adult-education comedy structured as a series of sitcom episodes stacked on top of each other. Why do the characters even bother to break into the high school at night to steal a midterm exam? Because the notion that they’re capering around like burglars “plays.” (It also gives Rajskub’s Theresa a chance to discover what erotically brandishing her butt and cracking a walnut have to do with each other.) Other glorified half-hour episodes include: Teddy going to work at a fast-food joint called Christian Chicken, where he does all he can to avoid becoming the restaurant’s mascot in a chicken suit; Teddy discovering that he has a welter of learning disabilities (that’s the film’s “very special” episode); Teddy’s fiancée being recruited by the dastardly Stuart to redesign the school, so that she’ll show up at the exact wrong moment and discover Teddy’s lack of formal education.
Kevin Hart, in the face of a lot of jokes about his character’s lack of intelligence, serves up his standard hyperkinetic smart-mouth blaring, which is fine — that’s what he does. But there’s less surprise to it every time. I laughed when Teddy added his pubic hairs to a piece of cheesecake to avoid paying a restaurant bill, but he’s such a flyweight hustler/liar/deceiver that nothing about him seems quite real. Tiffany Haddish, a comic performer of far greater nuance, underplays, and still owns the screen, and by the end you realize that her neatest trick is that she has made Carrie into a genuine person. It’s there in the humdrum pluck with which she tosses off references to the character’s “raggedy” paycheck and lifestyle, as if to say: Don’t think of me as one of those inspirational movie teachers — I’m just getting by.
“Night School” has a handful of laughs, but it’s a bloated trifle that, at 111 minutes, overstays its welcome. There are fart jokes and barf-in-the-face jokes; there’s also a bizarre twist in which Carrie solves Teddy’s learning disabilities by kicking the crap out of him in a mixed-martial-arts ring. (Each blow to the head gives him “focus.”) That doesn’t stop “Night School,” though, from serving up three endings devoted to its pro-education message, which seems to have emerged from what a superstar Kevin Hart is. He’s now powerful enough to drive comedies that make a point of being good for you. Even after they’ve spent their time filling you with the laugh equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup.