Katt Williams’ comments two weeks ago during an Atlanta radio show questioning Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart’s talent have overshadowed the duo’s promotional efforts for Night School, their first big screen pairing. Because of Williams, there’s even more pressure on the comedians and the film to be funny. Perhaps even funnier than usual for some. So, Night School is now more than a movie, it’s a referendum. Of sorts.
Brought to you by the director and the producer Malcolm D. Lee and Will Packer, respectively, behind last year’s hilarious $100 million romp Girls Trip, which made Haddish a star. Packer and Hart have come together before with similar blockbuster results for both Ride Along films. So, Night School, the first from Hart’s own production company, HartBeat, has a proven team driving it.
The story unfolds in Atlanta with flashbacks to Teddy Walker’s (Hart) high school days where he fails to get his high school diploma. Told that he would never be anything without it has made Teddy try even harder to achieve the trappings of success. And at the beginning of the film, he seems to have defied the odds and made it. He is a successful salesman hocking BBQ grills who drives a Porsche and has a smart and attractive woman, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), way out of his league. Everything isn’t what it seems, of course, and it really hits a head when disaster strikes and Teddy’s dream quickly becomes the doom he was cautioned against before becoming a high school dropout.
To get his life back on track, Teddy needs his GED. That means going to night school at his old high school now run by his high school nemesis, Stewart (Taran Killam), and taught by Carrie (Haddish). His fellow night school students are misfits. There’s Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who dropped out of high school to be a wife and mother; an immigrant, Luis (Al Madrigal), who is pursuing a unique American dream; Fat Joe plays Bobby, who is studying for his GED behind bars; Romany Malco (Think Like a Man) is Jay, a wokish downsized factory worker; Mila (Anne Winters) is a teenage delinquent who needs her GED to turn her life around, and then there’s Mackenzie (Rob Riggle), a former jock getting his GED to force his son to go to college. On the flip side is Teddy’s good friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), his annoyingly smart sister Denise (Bresha Webb), his girl Lisa’s best friend Maya (Yvonne Orji), and his parents Gerald (Keith David) and Carole Walker (Donna Biscoe).
It’s Hart vs. Haddish. Who’s most likely to… pic.twitter.com/pFz1i6eAqw
— Night School (@NightSchool) September 25, 2018
During his appearances, Hart has shared that Night School is about second chances and that is apt. The film is very much in line with Hollywood comedies in the vein of 40-Year-Old Virgin or Superbad in that it is packed with a lot of outrageous scenarios and wacky moments. More of them work than not work. For Kevin Hart fans, the spirit here is more Central Intelligence than Ride Along. The film doesn’t hide that it’s trying to be as commercial as possible, which is reflective in its casting. There is truly an archetype for almost every Hollywood sub-demographic, i.e., White male jock, White female Gen Zer, middle-aged White women. And, for good measure, there’s a woke character, a hip-hop and Latino one to capture the rest of the audience.
Although Hart and Haddish have a few scenes tailored for an epic comedy showdown, they don’t quite land as funny as intended. Still, the two have a good, overall easygoing relationship that never gets too contentious. Malco and Fat Joe have a few standout moments. Many of Malco’s jokes will surely go over the heads of mainstream audiences but should land with urban ones. Malco’s Jay has a good shot at rising to cult status. Fat Joe will definitely get another film. Unfortunately, Orji, popular as Molly on Insecure, is extremely underutilized. Webb, Yvette from Marlon, manages to grab a small moment or two, but not many. Hart and Haddish are engaging and funny enough.
Night School won’t have moviegoers doubled over in laughter like Girls Trip, but they won’t be mad either. Director Lee, best known for his Best Man films prior to Girls Trip, keeps showing that he has a real knack for comedy. If you are looking to be pleasantly entertained, Night School doesn’t fail. Williams’ supporters, of course, won’t be swayed. But those objections shouldn’t keep Hart and Haddish from scoring big at the box office.
Ronda Racha Penrice is an Atlanta-based AAFCA member whose work on film and TV has appeared in various publications, including theGrio, The Root, Upscale, NBC Think, Urban News Service and EBONY. The Chicago native is a former film publicist as well as the author of African American History For Dummies.