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‘Night School’ flunks out

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Love him or hate him, you know pretty much what you’re getting with Kevin Hart. His movies are built on a foundation of fast-talking shtick as he inevitably plays someone thrust into circumstances beyond his control due to his past failings.

The problem is that the shtick – never particularly robust to begin with – is definitely wearing thin.

So we have “Night School,” a largely unfunny lowbrow comedy that proves unable to come up with more than a handful of decent jokes despite sporting a frankly-unbelievable six credited screenwriters. Not even the presence of Tiffany Haddish and a not-at-all-bad supporting ensemble is enough to make this movie clear what is a decidedly low bar.

Hart plays Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who has nevertheless climbed the ladder to become a top-tier salesman of high-end barbecue equipment. He’s living beyond his means - leasing a Porsche, renting an apartment he can’t afford, picking up every check – all ostensibly to keep his girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “An Actor Prepares”) happy. His best high school friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz, TV’s “DuckTales”), a financial analyst, advises him to be more responsible, but Teddy doesn’t listen.

When an effort to propose to Lisa goes awry, Teddy’s left looking for a new job. Marvin wants to hire him, but he can’t until Teddy gets his GED. Teddy wants to hustle his way through night school, but quickly discovers that the principal at his old high school is an embittered high school rival; Stewart (Taran Killam, TV’s “Single Parents”) fancies himself a tough-guy educator in the vein of “Lean on Me.”

Meanwhile, the night school teacher is Carrie (Haddish), an overworked, underpaid teacher who loves her job, but needs the extra income from teaching the GED course. It’s a motley crew – repressed housewife Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub, “Wilson”), amiable meathead Mac (Rob Riggle, “Midnight Sun”), conspiracy weirdo Jaylen (Romany Malco, TV’s “A Million Little Things”), erstwhile delinquent Mila (Anne Winters, TV’s “13 Reasons Why”), aspiring singer-songwriter Luis (Al Madrigal, TV’s “I’m Dying Up Here”) and incarcerated student-by-Skype Bobby (rapper Fat Joe) – but all are sincere in their desire to better themselves.

It turns out to be more difficult than any of them anticipated.

Teddy does his best to keep his dire circumstances a secret from Lisa, hiding what he’s doing at night and getting a job at fast-food joint Christian Chicken to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Carrie does everything in her power to help Teddy and the rest of the students achieve their goals – even as Stewart pulls out all the stops in an effort to undermine Teddy.

And so on.

Look, you don’t go into a movie like “Night School” expecting high art. As I mentioned before, there aren’t a ton of surprises when it comes to Kevin Hart. The dude does what he does regardless of the context. Unfortunately, this particular context doesn’t really do him any favors.

Don’t get me wrong – there was some potential here. In terms of concept and casting, the foundation was there for Hart’s usual routine to work quite well. And Haddish brings a lot of her own unique energy to the table. Plus you’ve got a supporting cast that is actually pretty great. This was never going to be anything resembling a memorable movie, but the pieces were there for it to at least become an entertaining-enough time at the movies.

Instead, all of that potential is wasted on ridiculous sight gags and rapid escalations that are either pushed aside or ignored entirely. It’s supposed to be a comedy, yet there are maybe half-a-dozen actual laughs in the entire thing. Mostly, it’s a bunch of lowbrow laziness, substituting pacing and tone for anything resembling jokes. It isn’t even low-hanging fruit – director Malcolm D. Lee is happy to just pick up whatever has already fallen off the tree and call it good.

There’s legitimate chemistry between Hart and Haddish, but it’s squandered; Haddish is left to play the straight man to Hart’s rapid-fire energy. She does her best with what she’s got, but it’s a wasted opportunity. Killam is pretty good as the uptight, vengeful Stewart; Schwarz is fine, albeit underutilized. Ditto Echikunwoke. The GED class is a mixed bag – Rajskub is probably the highlight, while Malco and Riggle have moments. Winters and Madrigal are OK, but forgettable. Fat Joe has a couple of surprisingly strong bits.

Again – there was real potential here. Not for comedic brilliance or anything, but “Night School” could have been better. A LOT better. Instead, we get a meandering story (this movie could have shaved a good 20 minutes from its nearly two-hour runtime) where the plot is sparse and the jokes are even sparser. A talented cast is wasted. It didn’t need to be great, but it should have at least managed to be OK. It did not.

All in all, “Night School” fails to make the grade.

[1 out of 5]

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