Review: Night School

Kevin Hart’s latest odd-couple comedy proves generic, messy and flat, with the strained result failing to earn a passing grade.
Review: Night School

Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Heart in Night School.

Aside from stand-up specials, Kevin Hart’s on-screen resume is largely populated with one type of film. The comedian-turned-actor has become a go-to for odd-couple comedies, parlaying his shorter stature and manic energy into a lucrative movie career. He has played up his visible size difference with Dwayne Johnson in Central Intelligence and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and made two Ride Along features that stressed his dissimilar demeanour to Ice Cube. Now, in Night School, he’s paired with Girls Trip’s breakout star Tiffany Haddish – and while this team-up relies more upon adversarial characters than just appearances, reputations or pre-established perceptions, it’s still an excuse for Hart to riff back-and-forth with his main co-star.

That’s the appeal of the genre for Hart, who’s better when he’s bouncing off of someone – or, at least that’s what he seems to believe. Odd-couple comedies also allow the performer to ostensibly inhabit the same everyman buffoon over and over again, as long as he’s clashing with whoever he’s opposing. In fact, no matter whose fictional shoes he’s supposed to be stepping into, he always seems like he’s rehashing his standard role, brandishing a specific personality and navigating familiar conflicts. And that’s not merely a matter of the parts that he’s offered, as Night School demonstrates; alongside Harry Ratchford and Joey Wells (both veterans of documentary Kevin Hart: What Now?), Matthew Kellard (TV’s Real Husbands of Hollywood, starring Hart), Nicholas Stoller (Bad Neighbours 2) and John Hamburg (Why Him?), Hart is one of the film’s writers. 

Hart plays dropout turned salesman Teddy Walker, who didn’t require a diploma to become the top seller at a local barbecue store – or the shop’s perennial employee of the month. Leaving his studies doesn’t hamper his life until he accidentally sets his place of employment on fire, finds himself looking for work and secures a job in finance, although only if he has the necessary high school qualifications. Complicating matters is his own stubborn pride and misguided arrogance, first telling his new fiancée (Megalyn Echikunwoke, The Meddler) that he has the new role, and then assuming that he can sweet-talk his way into obtaining the paperwork. Alas, one of his former rivals (Taran Killam, Single Parents) is now principal of his old high school, and is far from accommodating. Tough but inspiring night school teacher Carrie (Haddish, Uncle Drew) still lets him into her class, but makes it clear that he’ll actually need to study to get his certificate.

Cue the expected clash as Teddy endeavours to looks for an easier option, Carrie combats his schemes and the rest of the eccentric night school attendees get caught in the middle. The latter includes Mary Lynn Rajskub (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Romany Malco (Blunt Talk), Rob Riggle (12 Strong), Al Madrigal (I'm Dying Up Here) and more as a bunch effortlessly led astray with the promise of securing the requisite grades, but Night School still rests heavily on Hart’s banter with Haddish. More than that, apart from a few scene-stealing interjections by their co-stars, the pair’s interplay gives the film its very few highlights. Neither performer is at their best, or anywhere near it, or given fleshed-out characters to work with; however there’s a spark to their riffing that might’ve ignited with better material. Unsurprisingly, jumping from contrasting personalities to gross-out humour, and from reflections upon modern-day America to a well-meaning storyline that awkwardly tackles learning disabilities, does no one any favours.

Indeed, along with Night School’s sizeable contingent of writers, director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip) appears content to throw whatever he can at the screen in the hope that Hart and Haddish can make some of it watchable. What results is a film that feels generic, messy, flat, over-extended and all-too-earnest, running for nearly two hours with sentiment and silliness where its scant narrative should be. Absent is the energy that made Girls Trip a hit, in favour of routine stylings more in the flavour of the filmmaker’s Soul Men and Scary Movie 5. Present, overwhelmingly, is Hart’s usual formula, though it increasingly earns a failing grade.

1 ½ stars ★☆
Night School

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
US, 2018, 111 mins
Release date: September 27
Distributor: Universal
Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 9 October, 2018

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay