2 Stars (out of 4)
It took six male screenwriters to achieve the impossible: Make Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish seem like mere comedy mortals. Their first collaboration, Night School, is a mediocre disappointment that features plenty of banter but almost no bite.
Though both stars have cut their teeth on, well, cutting humor, they go gooey here. They even serve up a message about the importance of striving for your dreams (shudder). Maybe they’re trying to broaden their audience. Or they want to try on full-fledged adulthood for size. Either way, their movie is far too safe and skippable.
Hart, who’s top-billed, plays to type: A self-proclaimed “loud-mouthed hustler” named Teddy. Back in high school, he slipped through the educational system on charm alone, finally quitting in a huff of frustration during a standardized test. Now his long-term plan of owning a barbeque grill store has gone up in smoke. His gorgeous girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) expects success. Teddy’s friend and financial advisor (Ben Schwartz) offers him an entry-level job with his firm — on the sole condition that he earn his General Equivalency Diploma.
He could easily take a free online study class and be done with it, but then the Night School would be over in 12 minutes. Teddy instead goes to night school at his old stomping grounds. Wouldn’t you know it, the obnoxious dweeb he tormented in class is the obnoxious principal (Taran Killam). And, of course, the woman (Haddish) he just needled during a traffic stop for talking too loud in her car turns out to be Carrie, his no-nonsense teacher. She refuses to put up with his B.S or his attempt to bribe her with Mexican food.
This isn’t a one-on-one tutorial, though. Teddy must learn geometry with a group of other misfits, including a harried super-Christian mom that got knocked up in high school (Mary-Lynn Rajskub), and a prison inmate (Fat Joe) who Skypes in to the sessions. Among the other supporting players in class, Romany Malco is the hot-tempered wild card; Rob Riggle is the doofus; Al Madrigal is the out-of-work waiter; and Anne Winters is the pretty, bored hipster from a wealthy family.
Discarding the 113 butt jokes, Night School gets dangerously close to an earnest After-School special. It turns out that Teddy isn’t just a lazy hoodwinker — he has multiple learning disorders. (He literally swats away numbers flying at his head.) An adult comedy has no business attempting to solve those very real issues. Indeed, in a strange sequence, Haddish “cures” Hart by punching him repeatedly in a hexagon-shaped boxing ring. OK. Yet Teddy keeps his girlfriend in the dark about his studies and his diagnosis because it’s funnier that way?
When a comedy is this lame, it’s a given that the running time will seem interminable. For Night School, one less study montage, face-off against Killam and happy ending would have sufficed. A dearth of original ideas doesn’t help. In a scene that reeks of The Breakfast Club minus the fun, the outcasts band together to put the screws to Killam and almost get caught! When a character suggests late in the game that the group should crash the school prom, my heart sank in the realization the set piece would drag on and on.
Hart and Haddish do share an easy chemistry and certainly have a grasp on their respective crowd-pleasing personae: Hart is the slick smooth-talker; Haddish is the woman who suffers no fools. The Girls Trip stand-out actress mercilessly teases her costar about his height because she can get away with it. And may I add that the actress has never looked more stylish — on a public school teacher’s salary, no less! I just wish the stars were given better material. Surely an improvised riff on, say, American history lessons would elicit heartier laughs than the dreck on the page. (Please note that Hart is one of the six listed screenwriters.) They get a passing grade . . . just barely.
Night School opens in theaters on Friday, September 28.