Exactly How Offensive Is Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart’s ‘Get Hard’?

In Etan Cohen’s Get Hard, out this Friday, ridiculously wealthy white asshole James (Will Ferrell) gets framed for Madoff-style investment fraud. Faced with a healthy prison sentence that begins in 30 days, he hires black working guy Darnell (Kevin Hart), who washes cars in his parking garage, to teach him how to survive (read: not get raped) in prison. Oh, the culture clash! Oh, the shenanigans that ensue! You can pretty much set a countdown clock to when hopelessly square James will turn up in the hood, sagging and sporting Locs and spewing street slang. And since Get Hard unspooled at SXSW last week, three questions have swirled around it: Is it racist? Is it homophobic? And if so, is it also funny?

Those questions were posed, quite directly, to the stars by Hitfix’s Louis Virtel — in a video interview that treats us to the sight of the movie-star duo straight-splaining to a gay reporter that their movie isn’t really all about the gay panic:

What’s interesting about this little controversy is that the discussion does require a bit of nuance — for both charges. In its early passages, Get Hard flirts with honest-to-goodness social and racial commentary, contrasting the morning rituals, home lives, and neighborhoods of its two protagonists. Ferrell’s James is an on-point parody of the clueless white millionaire who’s totally convinced himself that he got where he is by hard work, advising Hart’s Darnell, “There’s winners and there’s losers, James, it’s what drives this country.” And when he hires Darnell based on the wholly unearned assumption that the blue-collar black guy has done time himself (he hasn’t), Darnell tells his wife that, for the money James is paying, he’ll “be every stereotype he already thinks I am.”

That’s a great line, and a worthwhile concept for a legitimately subversive social satire; the trouble is, that’s as far as Get Hard goes with it. Aside from an uproarious bit where Darnell tries to appropriate the plot of Boyz n the Hood as his own backstory, Get Hard’s social and racial politics pretty much disappear in the second half, in favor of a lame let’s-save-James thread and the movie’s real money shot, Ferrell playing gangsta, a trope that was already tired when Steve Martin trotted it out for Bringing Down the House a dozen years ago. And, yes, the connected bits of business do trade in the kind of sad racial stereotypes that this very movie claimed to comment on — and set itself up against — with that “already thinks I am” line.

Will Ferrell in "Get Hard"

The question of those stereotypes was initially raised at Cohen’s post-screening Q&A at SXSW, which included such audience comments as, “As a fellow Jew, I’ve got to say that this film seemed as racist as fuck.” In the Hitfix interview, Hart dodges the racism question entirely, instead insisting, “Here’s the thing, man, at the end of the day, a critic’s job is to critique. I don’t think I’ve done one project that’s gotten good critic reviews, not one. And if you feed into that as an actor or an actress, you’re in the wrong game. That’s their job. This is a comedy.” Um, three problems: 1. the comment at SXSW came from an audience member, not a critic; 2. Hart’s other, lousy movies have nothing to do with this conversation; and 3. according to Rotten Tomatoes, several Hart vehicles have “gotten good critic reviews,” including About Last Night, Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain, and Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain.

And Ferrell doesn’t exactly shoot straight on this point either. Of the SXSW Q&A, he says, “That’s a situation that was completely misrepresented. Someone who made that comment also followed up by saying, I thought it was hysterical.” Fair enough! People tend to be super-complimentary in festival Q&As, especially in Austin. Here’s where it gets sticky: Ferrell continues, “It played to a kind of standing ovation-type reaction,” to which Hart interjects, “Not kind of — it did!” And they’re right. They did get a standing ovation at SXSW — before the movie played. The ovation was for the two stars, doing a big, boombox-blasting entrance, with Ferrell literally prodding the audience, “Let’s get up! C’mon now!” and the two of them insisting the entire crowd get on their feet (“Are they up?” asked Hart, peering into the balcony) before starting the show.

Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell at the SXSW premiere of "Get Hard"

Now, what’s tricky about throwing the blanket of homophobia over Get Hard’s premise is that it isn’t a simple case of the “gay panic = comedy” or “acting gay = comedy” equation that makes movies like Boat Trip, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and even (to a lesser degree) 22 Jump Street so troubling. What Ferrell’s James is so terrified of encountering in prison isn’t gay sex, it’s male-on-male rape. Now, whether that’s a juicy, can’t-miss premise for a studio comedy in 2015, I’ll leave up to you.

Where the movie gets into trouble is in the soon-to-be notorious “gay brunch” sequence. After several days of trying and failing to toughen up James, Darnell finally gives up, takes him to a brunch spot in West Hollywood, and informs him, “You are going to have to learn to suck dick.” James goes into the men’s room with a nameless gay dude (poor Matt Walsh, from the UCB and Veep, who deserves better than this) and spends the following high-larious sequence trying to force himself to perform oral sex, a chore he ultimately deems impossibly gag-worthy.

It’s hard to say what’s more irritating here: the overall “ew, gay dudes, grossssss” vibe of the bathroom business (complete with big-laugh cutaways of Walsh’s floppy, flaccid member), or the conversation between Darnell, waiting out at the table, and the guy who tries to pick him up, who he’s later seen FaceTiming with, as if they’re best buddies now. It’s a touch that screams tacked-on, play-it-safe studio note: “They won’t be able to say the scene’s homophobic if he makes a gay friend!!”

Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell in "Get Hard"

Pressed on these touches, Ferrell told Hitfix, “The premise of the movie is addressing the fears that someone may have going into prison. We didn’t come up with those fears. They’re just a societal norm. So, uh, that’s where the comedy comes from.” He’s correct — to a point. The problem is, comedy (or, at least, good comedy) can come from there, but it can’t just stop at pointing out a “societal norm”; it has to have something to say about it, to subvert it, or to satirize those who perpetuate that norm or believe in it. Offensive and/or controversial topics can live within good comedy; hell, that’s how Mel Brooks built a career. Director/co-writer Cohen has built funny movies out of controversial building blocks before (he co-wrote Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy), but all he manages to do here, in matters of both race and sex, is point and laugh.

Strangely, in attempting to defend the movie, Hart ends up defining the problem. “I said to myself, ‘this is funny,’” he tells Virtel. “And at the end of the day, funny is funny regardless of what area it’s coming from.” But the problem is that Get Hard, contrary to Hart’s defense, isn’t funny; it just doesn’t work, and if it did, no one would mind much how it got those laughs. But “what area it’s coming from” becomes part of that equation, because the people who made it didn’t bother to think through what they were satirizing, what they wanted to say, or how they wanted to say it. What they left us with was something obvious, lazy, tone-deaf, and mean-spirited — and that, friends, is hard to laugh at.

Get Hard is out Friday.