Outside the theater where I saw “Night School,” there was a cardboard standee that depicted star Kevin Hart (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) trying to climb out of a locker he has presumably been shoved into while an unimpressed Tiffany Haddish (“Uncle Drew”) stands outside with her arms crossed. Walking in, I took it as a piece of marketing and nothing more. Walking out after two hours of the sort of banal anti-comedy that has come to define Hart’s movie career, I’m not gonna lie, the image of his character being shoved in a locker took on a sort of cathartic quality. I’m used to saying that a movie wastes its cast, but this feels like a different cast, one which, especially the star and co-writer, wastes the movie.
In order to give you an idea of the sort of jokes “Night School” has up its sleeve, let’s look at the first scene that Hart and Haddish share together. Hart rolls up to a stoplight in his Porsche. Haddish stops next to him. She’s yelling about something raunchy over the phone, because raunchiness is innately funny. Hart tells her he can hear her, and she starts yelling because people yelling is innately funny. He psshes her, she psshes him back, and then they just start making weird noises at each other.
This goes on for quite some time.
This should probably go without saying, but taking a gag that isn’t funny to begin with and extending it to mind-numbing lengths isn’t the very essence of comedy, it’s the very essence of sadism. For all Hart’s experience as a comedian, this sort of scene is alarmingly commonplace. It gets to the point where these extended riff sessions start to infringe on the story. The godawful editing is annoying on its own, but it also clearly signals multiple important plot points, subplots or character arcs that are either montaged over or cut entirely, presumably to make room for the scene where Kevin Hart makes baby noises. With the theatrical cut already running an overindulgent two hours, one can only imagine the ego-stroking excess of the original.
That’s the biggest problem with the film. Comedies still have to tell stories, but “Night School” isn’t interested in all that. It’s just interested in making things as easy on Kevin Hart as possible. So his character has flaws, but most of his problems come from the overblown villains in his life — like his father (Keith David, “The Nice Guys”), or his high school rival turned principal (Taran Killam, “Single Parents”). He’s a serial liar who needs to change, but other people are the real problem. This keeps Hart from having to actually, you know, act.
Even when the script touches on something real, it can’t resist going for the easy way out. There are moments where it broaches the subject of learning disabilities and the shame that can come with that, but it doesn’t actually engage with these topics. It pays empty lip service to the idea of Hart learning differently, then cuts to a scene of Tiffany Haddish’s stunt double kicking the shit out of him in a hexagon to teach him math. Get it? Because it’s different. It’s short-selling the message of the film for a bad joke, but it’s different.
What’s most disappointing is that we do see flashes of another version of “Night School.” Take a scene where we see Haddish working with a child with a learning disability and teaching him math by playing cards with him, for example. All I could think during this scene was that a similar scene between Hart and Haddish, done right, would have given them room to riff off each other in a believable setting, developed their characters and their chemistry and actually confronted the reality of people who learn differently. Yes, this scene would have been harder to write than, “Then she suplexes him and farts on his face.” Yes, the jokes would have been less broad. And yes, it would have been harder for Hart to sleepwalk through this version, but it would have been undoubtedly better than settling for weird noises and a fart joke.