** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Malcolm D. Lee
STARS Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish
Tiffany Haddish broke out last year with her terrific turn in the box office hit Girls Trip, while Kevin Hart has proven himself to be a comic force in such endeavors as Central Intelligence and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. A movie that unites the pair sounds like a proposition that can’t miss, but Night School squanders their talents in a limp endeavor that’s anemic even by contemporary comedy standards.
While the poster (with both their names plastered across the top) makes this look like a co-starring venture, the opening credit sequence (with his name before the title and hers following it) is more accurate in establishing their roles as leading man and supporting player. Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who nevertheless enjoys a rich life with his beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the promise of future ownership of the BBQ grill store where he presently works as a salesperson (he’s been “Employee of the Month” since time immemorial). But a mishap results in Teddy suddenly finding himself unemployed, and without a high school diploma, he can’t even accept the lucrative job being offered by his best friend (Ben Schwartz) in the financial sector.
In order to receive his GED, Teddy therefore has no choice but to attend night school, where he and various other late-bloomers — a doofus dad (Rob Riggle), an anti-tech eccentric (Romany Malco), an unappreciated housewife (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and so on — find themselves under the watchful eye of Carrie (Haddish), the stern but fair instructor who refuses to put up with her students’ nonsense.
After a promising beginning, Night School devolves into a series of gags that are more desperate than funny. With a pathological zeal, the movie repeatedly bypasses clever gags relating to its setup in favor of juvenile jokes involving bodily injuries, perpetual puking, and pubic hairs in cheesecake. And with a script credited to no less than six writers (including Hart), it’s perhaps no surprise that the pacing is clumsy and the narrative is sloppy (can someone who ends up seeing this explain to me how they all got off that roof?).
Perhaps the picture’s greatest flaw, however, rests in the mismatch between its stars. An ideal movie starring Hart and Haddish would make them comedic equals along the lines of Cheech & Chong or Laurel & Hardy. Instead, they’re more like Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello and Groucho/Chico/Harpo & Zeppo, with Hart receiving the lion’s share of the humorous interludes and Haddish mostly relegated to playing straight man (or straight woman, in this case). In fact, virtually every performer is provided more comic opportunities than Haddish, who’s primarily required to give motivational speeches about the importance of education. Thanks anyway, but for that sort of inspirational entertainment, I’ll stick with Stand and Deliver and To Sir, with Love over this sophomoric effort.