It makes sense after earning critical praise as the breakout performer of last year’s surprise success Girl’s Trip that Tiffany Haddish would graduate to leading role status. It’s something of a shame then that Night School fails to match the live-wire temperament she’s capable of, and ultimately sidelines her to play second fiddle to Kevin Hart in a comedy that, whilst not entirely terrible, doesn’t utilise its reliable comedy ingredients to the best of their ability.
Hoping to evoke laughter from its audience through Hart’s man-child shtick and Haddish’s no-nonsense attitude more so than a script that’s been written with wit and care, Night School adopts a tried and true premise of situational outlandishness, throwing a plethora of unlikely (and theatrically unbelievable) personality types together and hoping that the comedic jumble they throw out will stick more than sink.
And just what exactly is that outlandish situation? Well, that would be silver-tongued Teddy Walker (Hart) and his need to earn his GED in order to land a finance job, learning that being a high school dropout doesn’t exactly endear you to the professional workforce. Had he not been living above his means to impress his girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke, thankfully written as an understanding woman and not the shrew many could expected), or burnt down his former place of business, Teddy could’ve happily survived as a dropout, but where’s the comedy in that?
Enter night school, and the ball-busting educator at its helm, Carrie (Haddish). From the moment the two meet – an amusing sequence where they sling insults towards one another from their vehicles at a red light – the push-pull mentality between Hart and Haddish is voltaic, and had the film just been more of Haddish verbally taking down Hart at every opportunity she gets, Night School could’ve been a more consistently enjoyable comedy as opposed to the hit and often miss product it ultimately plays out as.
Alongside Teddy in the night school classes are a handful of off-kilter characters that the 6-person strong script (yes, 6 writers laid their pens to this, including Hart and Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller) hopes will tickle the funny bone of its easily amused audience; the preview screening I attended had many an audible chuckle throughout, so they clearly hit their briefing. Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Mary Lyn Rajskub, Al Madrigal, Anne Winters, and Fat Joe make up the who’s who (or who’s that) of the night school classes, but as dedicated to their stereotypical roles they prove to be, they don’t all make good on the offered material; Fat Joe’s incarcerated Bobby adds literally nothing to the overall proceedings, but the awkward sexual aggression pent up in Rajskub’s neglected housewife earns enough laughs to forgive a prison fight scene which attempts to be funny but just comes off mildly violent and overly long.
The comedy on hand fits very much in the wheelhouse of previous Hart efforts, so it makes sense that he’s front and centre for most of the humorous set-pieces Night School has to offer, but when sparring with Haddish we see glimpses of a better movie come through. Though her work in Girl’s Trip was overseen by a duo of screenwriters (one of them being a woman, a gender missing from the writing credits here) you got the sense she was allowed to ad-lib a large portion of her dialogue, and perhaps if that same sense of spontaneity and trust was afforded to her here, she could’ve overrun this film with the sass and spark she naturally possesses, allowing it an identity beyond the restraints Hart has harnessed.