Kevin Hart is a better actor than a comedian.
That might be a minority opinion. His latest film, “Kevin Hart: What Now?” captures his sold-out show on Aug. 30, 2015, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, his hometown. The crowd numbered 50,000, a remarkable feat for a performer of any kind.
There’s no question Hart is a gifted entertainer. In movies like “Think Like a Man” and “Ride Along,” he played variations of the same endearing character: the fast-talking live wire who compensates for his short stature (5-foot-4) with pluck, wit and outsize machismo. Hart hasn’t yet shown the range of a Robin Williams or an Eddie Murphy, but he might yet: In this year’s very funny “Central Intelligence,” he played a former high school jock whose glory years are behind him.
On the stand-up stage, though, Hart’s distinctive persona is tougher to identify. He isn’t a mischievous social critic like Chris Rock, and he certainly isn’t a beleaguered Middle American like Jim Gaffigan. Mostly, Hart is a guy who says nutty stuff. His timing and delivery are strong, but his material feels random. And here’s the clincher: It doesn’t have the ring of truth.
One of Hart’s running jokes in “What Now?” concerns a gangster raccoon who threatened him by miming a handgun. That’s sort of funny, but not when Hart insists it’s a true story. Many of his routines are like this: fictional scenarios about, say, battling an orangutan or escaping from a mass murder or watching his wife being eaten by a shark. Aside from a curious mean streak, what makes these jokes fall flat is that they don’t say anything interesting about people, about who we are and how we behave. What’s comedy if it doesn’t hold a mirror up to you, or hit you where you live?
“What Now?” — so titled because that’s what people ask Hart after every success — pads out its 90-minute running time with an overlong spy spoof starring Halle Berry and Don Cheadle. It’s passingly funny, but it also suggests that Hart’s best stand-up material only added up to a slim 60 minutes. Maybe Hart, too, knows that acting is his real strength.