NIGHT SCHOOL. Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco, Megalyn Echikunwoke. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. 111 minutes. Rated M (Crude sexual humour and coarse language).
The first time I saw Tiffany Haddish in a film, I was tremendously impressed (as were plenty of other critics). Playing the loud and loose Dina in ‘Girls Trip’, the actress’ comedy chops were on full display. It was a raunchy, unpretentious performance that marked the comedienne and actress as one of Hollywood’s “next big things”. She’d performed stand up and tackled television roles for years, but this exposure took her to another level. Overnight, she was booking projects with all the majors, including this feature with current comedy powerhouse Kevin Hart, which would reteam her with her ‘Girls Trip’ director, Malcolm D. Lee. Haddish and Hart are a pairing loaded with potential, but interestingly made it to their similar levels of saturation via different paths. In contrast to Haddish’s meteoric leap, Hart seems to have crept up on audiences. Starting from bit roles in breakout comedies like ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’, Hart has grown his brand as an actor and comedian, now regularly selling out stadiums and fronting some of the year’s biggest films.
However, Hart’s growth has led to some evidence of diminishing returns. Regular readers might recall my criticism of ‘Get Hard’, which starred Hart and Will Ferrell. His ‘Ride Along’ franchise has been similarly bad. There is the occasional gem, such as his fun ‘Jumanji’ sequel, but it seems like he is developing regular projects simply to stay in work, to stay relevant. Audiences are still turning out for his movies, but if they’re going to be as lacklustre as ‘Night School’ is, this surely cannot last. Given that she agreed to appear in this film too, I fear that Haddish might be following Hart’s example and becoming oversaturated in lacklustre films. I hold out hope for Haddish – one stinker does not a failed career make – but this unfunny and predictable comedy is a step in the wrong direction.
Hart stars as Teddy, a high school dropout who made good and became a highly successful BBQ salesman. Driving a slick convertible and renting his handsome duplex, he lives pay check to pay check, much to the chagrin of his friend-cum-financial adviser Marvin (Ben Schwartz). Teddy should know better, but he’s convinced that he must maintain a certain lifestyle to keep his beautiful and successful girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) interested. When his extravagant marriage proposal goes wrong, destroying the BBQ emporium at which he works, he finds himself jobless. Marvin offers him a lifeboat, a nice job at his finance company, but it comes with a catch: he needs to earn his high school diploma before he can be hired.
Teddy heads back to his alma mater to attend night school, where Haddish play his no-nonsense teacher, Carrie, and Taran Killam plays the school principal, Stewart, whom Teddy once bullied when they were at school together. Also taking Carrie’s evening classes are a zany collection of lazy archetypes (no one would accuse the six credited screenwriters, including Hart, of pushing the envelope). There’s an oafish Dad called Mackenzie (Rob Riggle), an overworked but unappreciated Mum named Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub), cool girl Mila (Anne Winters), and immigrant Luis (Al Madrigal). Only Romany Malco, playing fast-talking technophobe Jaylen, manages to extract some laughs from his one-dimensional character’s predictable side quest. Given that Teddy could avoid his woes by just admitting to his fiancé that he’s not the financially secure, well educated guy that she thinks he is, you probably won’t be very invested in his struggles through secondary education. Nonetheless, the movie follows the ups and downs of Teddy and his classmates until every high school movie cliché is ticked off the list.
While the script does manage to buck predictability in its dying breaths (when Teddy finds out his final test scores), it’s flat up to that point. The jokes aren’t great, and they fail to capitalise on their performers’ strengths. American comedies today seem to relish the challenge of incorporating as much improv as possible, but ‘Night School’ settles for a couple of back-and-forths that literally devolve into Hart and Haddish shouting single words at one another before moving on to making random animal sounds. It’s about as funny as it sounds. Or not. Throw in the customary, inconsequential violence that the genre seems to lean more and more into every year, and ‘Night School’ is about as boring and vanilla as comedies come. Maybe this short summation is low-hanging fruit, but after the film itself settled for so many broad and hackneyed gags, I’m going to give myself a hall pass: ‘Night School’ comprehensively fails.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 27.