'Night School' Is Simply Remedial Comedy

Tiffany Haddish as Carrie in Night School (IMDB)

Yes, Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart are too good for this by-the-numbers mess, but that's modern comedy: Throw some stars out there and see what they can do.

Night School
Malcolm D. Lee

Universal Pictures

28 Sept 2018 (US)


Movie magic isn't reliable. It's an unpredictable concoction of many parts outside of pretty much anybody's control. That's particularly true with comedies, which studios tend to under- or over-promote. They're forever flatfooted. The shock when a modestly-budgeted comedy takes off is so palpable that usually bad decisions are made. If something works once, why shouldn't it again? Just ask the suit at Universal who greenlit The Hangover III before The Hangover II even hit theaters.

It's easy to imagine something like that happening with Night School. Last summer, Malcolm D. Lee's beautifully dirty Girls Tripmade a mint by sending four women tearing through New Orleans with a few simple rules. The crucial one: Whenever Tiffany Haddish's character wound up for another deftly trash-mouthed tirade, everyone needed to simply step back and let her fly. Within a week, Haddish was crowned funniest woman in America and there was serious talk of her getting an Oscar nomination. Reuniting her with Lee and adding Kevin Hart, the only comic in America who can tour arenas and has a movie career based mostly on his willingness to play his short stature off tall co-stars, makes a perfect kind of sense.

Unless the result is Night School. In the '80s, this kind of under-imagined and over-emoted project would have paired some over-the-hill comic with a few fresh-faced youngsters and blipped wanly into theaters before settling into a comfortable half-life circulating through the pay cable channels. But these days, it's a bigger deal, with two of Hollywood's most bankable stars mugging for all they're worth in the posters in the hope of ginning up a decent opening weekend. Which it probably will, because most of the TV ads feature Haddish punching Hart in the face. Because education.

Kevin Hart as Teddy in Night School (IMDB)

The big idea of this story—which has a full six writing credits appended to it—has Hart playing Teddy, a high school dropout barbecue grill salesman who is hiding his lack of education or high-paying job from his stylishly out-of-his-league fiancé Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). One very foreseeable catastrophe later, Teddy's forced to finally get his GED. But in secret, because Lisa can't know his shameful truth and because as far back as Shakespeare we've known that comedy in large part requires people lying and deceiving for damn fool reasons.

A somewhat reserved Haddish plays Carrie, instructor at Teddy's night school. She spends a good part of her screen time reading various sections of the riot act with icy determination to Teddy or Stewart (Taran Killam, further perfecting his stone-cold creep routine), Teddy's childhood nemesis and current school principal. She dominates effortlessly, but in a limited and underwritten character that doesn't give her the full range of her comedic abilities.

In many cases, the stars hand the movie right over to the gaggle of comics playing Teddy's classmates. It's a mixed crew of end-of-their-tether adult scholars, ranging from Rob Riggle's too-dumb-to-breathe dad to Mary Lynn Rajskub's overwhelmed homemaker ("What is 'woke'?"). In many comedies this crew of happy-to-help sidekicks—they throw themselves all too easily into the test-stealing scheme Teddy suggests about five minutes after getting to class—would provide a solid base of laughs for the stars to build from. But here, they're mostly reduced to antic clowning, excepting Romany Malco's slyly underplayed take on a conspiracy nut.

Hart pulls from his full arsenal of tricks, particularly the rubber-faced mugging and that high nasal wail of pain and distress. It all works fine enough, until the story forces him to put on a serious look and face the self-delusions and learning disabilities holding him back: "I got learning herpes?" That line received among the biggest laughs of the night from the audience this writer saw Night School with. The other biggest laugh probably came during the test-theft caper when one night-school student vomits from the ceiling into the open mouth of another. Nothing was audible for a good ten to 20 seconds afterwards.

If Night School were a better movie, that might have been a problem.




Reading Pandemics

Parable Pandemics: Octavia E. Butler and Racialized Labor

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, informed by a deep understanding of the intersectionality of dying ecologies, disease, and structural racism, exposes the ways capitalism's insatiable hunger for profit eclipses humanitarian responses to pandemics.


'Tiger King' and the Post-Truth Culture War

Tiger King -- released during and dominating the streaming-in-lockdown era -- exemplifies in real-time the feedback loop between entertainment and ideology.


Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".


Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"


'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.


Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.


DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.


On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.


Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.


Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.


100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.


What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.