Staying relevant in comedy is understandably hard to do. A comedian has to have a fresh voice and unique style to stand out, but also attempt growth, as to not get stuck in the same old type of jokes. Some of the funniest people in the world can get stuck in this quagmire, like Will Ferrell getting trapped in the mediocrity of the Daddy’s Home films, or Melissa McCarthy continuously doing variations on her breakout Bridesmaids role. Or worst case scenario, end up in the purgatory of direct-to-Netflix dreck like Adam Sandler. Night School features two such talents in varying levels of gigantic comedic careers. Kevin Hart has become one of the most reliable box office successes, while Tiffany Haddish is still riding high off her scene stealing performance in Girls Trip and is already headlining her own films. In Night School, a clear paycheck masquerading as a lazy comedy, Hart and Haddish show what a comedian should and shouldn’t do with their success.
Hart plays Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who has been pretending to be a success to impress his girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). When Teddy accidentally blows up the grill store he works at, he returns to his old high school to finally get his GED. To prepare for the test, Teddy goes to night school taught by Carrie (Haddish), a frustrated teacher just trying to make enough money for rent. The rest of the cast is comprised of one joke characters played by competent comedians, such as “bored housewife obsessed with referencing her ass” (Mary Lynn Rajskub), “woke conspiracy theorist afraid of a Terminator future” (Romany Malco) and “goofy dad” (Rob Riggle).
Hart here is doing his same old schtick that he’s brought to Central Intelligence, Ride Along, Get Hard and every other film he’s played the high-strung half of a duo. The jokes remain the same: Hart is short, shrill, and easily gets animated. Despite the six credited writers, Hart’s jokes never get any fresher. On the other hand, Haddish is the closest thing Night School has to a straight man. While the role isn’t anything remarkable, it does show that Haddish has depth, and can just as easily play a molder of minds as she can a grapefruiting wildcard. Considering that including Night School, Haddish has three films coming out by the end of 2018, it’s at least nice to see that her comedy has different modes, unlike Hart.
At first, Night School presents the idea that this could be a film about the difficulties of finding work in today’s economy, with many characters struggling just to survive. But instead, Night School becomes a series of vignettes that center or build up to weirdly violent moments that don’t really matter in the long run. In one such scene, the entire class decides that learning the Pythagorean Theorem is too hard and decide to steal a test from the principal’s office. The scene builds to Riggle’s character breaking his arm. In the next scene, Riggle is fine and the dragged out set piece has served no purpose.
In another strange choice, Carrie discovers that Teddy has a collection of learning disabilities. Her solution to get past his problems is to literally beat the shit out of him until he either gets knocked out or learns his classwork. It’s just another example of Night School going for easy jokes, rather than attempt some semblance of sense.
Director Malcolm D. Lee – who also worked with Haddish on Girls Trip – seems limited by his PG-13 rating. Moments in the film seem like they have been oddly edited and lines changed to supposedly avoid an R rating. But even with this restriction, every scene feels stretched out to the point of airlessness, every joke dragged out into mundanity. Considering this is a film that also somehow wastes the comedic talents of Ben Schwartz, Taran Killan, and Al Madrigal, it’s a shame the film didn’t allow for at least some freedom within the boring script from half a dozen writers.
Night School’s redeemed by the dynamic between Haddish and Hart, and that’s largely due to Haddish’s abilities. In this lifeless, packaged comedy, Haddish is the only one handling the material in a somewhat interesting way. Night School needed less of Hart’s tired comedic sensibilities and more of Haddish’s spirit to save this bore of a studio comedy.