It’s never a good sign when, within the first 10 minutes of a movie, you’re wondering what on Earth the thing is even supposed to be about. Night School spends an interminable amount of time setting up its incredibly simple premise, much of it wasted on below-sitcom-level jokes about pubic hair, farts and how short Kevin Hart is.
Hart has always been funny, and it wasn’t long ago that the mere presence of his name above a title would guarantee weekend box-office domination. But he’s genuinely struggling here, no doubt subdued under the pressure to perform in another PG-13, kid-friendly gross-out comedy. Not until Tiffany Haddish finally shows up close to 20 minutes into the film (to yell about how short Hart is) do things finally pick up, but only briefly. Her surrealist sense of comic timing feels as if the projectionist mixed up the reels and accidentally ran a few seconds of a half-decent movie.
Ostensibly telling the story of a goofy loser who just can’t catch a break, Night School goes out of its way to make just about everything about Hart’s character as unsympathetic as possible. It’s almost sadistic how often he’s put into situations that he could have completely avoided had he not followed through on increasingly poor decision-making. This could well be the basis for a solid comedy, but here it smacks of the six credited screenwriters having no clear plan in place and simply detonating their plot halfway through. There’s plenty of runtime devoted to things like a Chick-fil-A-inspired fast-food joint where Hart must dress as a chicken, multiple scenes involving vomit or the threat of vomit and the common racist stereotypes you get in a movie like this, each explored to their absolute breaking point. This is one of those movies where you can predict the end of each scene within about five seconds. They mostly involve Hart saying or doing the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time. If only any of it were funny.
With a supporting cast full of second-string comedy ringers, this should have been a slam dunk, at least in terms of setting them up and knocking them down. Mary Lynn Rajskub, Rob Riggle and the skin-crawlingly irritating Taran Killam all play strictly to type, but director Malcolm D. Lee, who has previously shown extraordinary talent with ensembles, just doesn’t know what to do with any of them. Only Haddish comes through relatively unscathed, but her effortlessness and charisma only get her so far, as the overcomplicated script and boring direction seem determined to undermine her every time.
Night School plays most often as a series of loosely connected sketches clumsily bumping into each other. The premise alone, while in no way original, should have been enough to carry things along, but it zigs and zags so often that it becomes all but impossible to keep track of anything. Eventually, I just stopped caring and figured, ah well. Hart and Haddish and (hopefully) Lee will be back on top again. You can skip this one.
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence. Now playing at AMC River Hills Classic 10, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.