In its opening moments, Get Hard features two shots of Will Ferrell's pale white backside. This is expected — he shows his derrière in all his comedies, and we're getting it over with early here. Now the movie can be creative. Daring. Try new things. Push boundaries. Make us laugh for reasons we didn't know existed. That Get Hard attempts to do all of the above is laudable; that it only moderately succeeds is, well, laughable for many reasons.
Ferrell is millionaire fund manager James King, and he's on top of the world. His gold-digging fiancée Alissa (Alison Brie) can't wait to spend her life with him in their mansion. Her father, Martin (Craig T. Nelson), also happens to be James' boss, and things couldn't be better at work. Or so James thinks.
At their engagement party, with John Mayer playing a song for them, James is arrested and charged with 43 counts of securities fraud and 30 counts of embezzlement. He maintains his innocence.
James is sentenced to 10 years in maximum security at San Quentin prison. He's given 30 days to get his affairs in order. Accordingly, he completely freaks out. For help he enlists the guy who washes his car, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to teach him to survive in prison. To be clear, director Etan Cohen is asking us to believe that even though James is smart enough to run a billion-dollar hedge fund, he's also so blatantly ignorant that he thinks Darnell has been in prison just because he's African-American. Ordinarily this would be offensive, but Darnell is in on the joke, and Cohen gets some good laughs from Darnell's wife (Edwina Findley Dickerson) and daughter (Ariana Neal) as a result of the situation.
The burden of the bulk of the laughs, however, lands on Ferrell and Hart, and both are game for the challenge but not always effective. James' training includes how to fight, survive a riot, always be on guard, etc., and in each scenario Ferrell and Hart never lack for energy. What they do lack, however, is chemistry, because they never play well off one another. They're nearly uncomfortable together, in fact. It's as if they're consumed with doing their own thing to make sure they appeal to their fan base, and forgot that the collaborative power of comedy is stronger than what an individual can provide.
A prime example comes when they're in the makeshift prison yard and Darnell imitates what a contentious African-American, Latin and gay confrontation could feel like. The scene requires Hart to shift gears in a nanosecond but Ferrell to just stand there as the straight man, likely unsure if he should improv to keep the scene going or just let Hart do his thing.
Conversely, Ferrell has a moment later in which he goes on a trash-talking rant that requires Hart to just sit and listen. Add to this some truly desperate moments, like James having a hard time performing fellatio and the otherwise cowardly Darnell breaking up a Neo-Nazi party, and you have a comedy that probably reads funny on paper but doesn't play well on the big screen.
This is Etan Cohen's first feature directing gig, and no doubt Ferrell and Hart's lack of chemistry is in part due to the way the film was shot and edited. Timing, pacing and editing are essential in comedy; a great joke can be delivered perfectly by the actor but if it's not presented correctly all the humor will be lost. This is not to say that happens all the time in Get Hard, but it happened enough for more jokes to miss than hit.