For a comedy about a wealthy white guy trying to act like a black criminal, "Get Hard" achieves two impressive feats. It squeezes a fair amount of laughs from a limited joke and, equally surprising, manages to be mostly inoffensive.
On both counts, much credit goes to the movie's two appealing stars. Will Ferrell plays James King, a Los Angeles hedge fund manager wrongly convicted of fraud, while Kevin Hart plays Darnell, a valet from whom James seeks advice on how to survive in prison. Why Darnell? Well, because he's black -- and as James points out, one in three African-American men will serve time in jail. "Statistical analysis," James says smugly, "is what I do."
That's a rare glimmer of sharp comedy in the otherwise broad-humored "Get Hard," which is essentially an extended version of the "get bad" scene in "Stir Crazy," the 1980 prison comedy with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Most of the Ferrell-Hart routines are simple slapstick -- weightlifting, self-defense training and so on. Only a few scenes involving a crew of gangbangers (led by rapper Tip "T.I." Harris as Russell) portray Ferrell as a specifically Caucasian fish out of water. The fact that Darnell is not really a former felon but a squeaky-clean family man is a gentle twist, though not a terribly important one.
Etan Cohen makes his directorial debut with "Get Hard" from a script he wrote with Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, both of Comedy Central's "Key and Peele." Very occasionally, the filmmakers tiptoe into social commentary. The opening credits, juxtaposing Bel-Air mansions against ratty auto-loan storefronts, are surprisingly pointed, and there's a brief scene in which James teaches a young gangster how to steal quite legally using financial instruments. These real-world nods might come from producer Adam McKay, who managed to insert a rant against Wall Street in his 2010 comedy, "The Other Guys."
In "Get Hard," Ferrell and Hart successfully play to type -- the delusional blowhard and the beleaguered underdog, respectively -- but they're very nearly the only two actors in the film. Alison Brie, as James' gold-digging fiancee, and Craig T. Nelson, as his boss, appear only briefly. A little diversity, in that sense, might have helped.