It’s a transformation that’s been underway for some time, but I think we can now say it’s official: Will Ferrell has gone from being this generation’s John Belushi to being this generation’s Dan Aykroyd. I mean this not in terms of talent (though the case could perhaps be made) or even style, but rather in terms of the roles toward which he's gravitating.
Ferrell, 47, is now less likely to play a primal agent of chaos than a clueless, middle-aged white man upon whom chaos is unleashed. Out with Buddy the Elf and Frank the Tank and the legendary Ricky Bobby. In with IRS agent Harold Crick (Stranger Than Fiction), forensic accountant Allen Gamble (The Other Guys), and now, in Get Hard, stock trader James King.
This latest role is particularly Aykroydesque in that it explicitly recalls Louis Winthorpe III, from John Landis's classic 1983 prince-and-pauper comedy Trading Places. Like Louis, James is a selfish and pampered money-maker for a financial firm, beloved by his bosses and by a gold-digging fiancée who will abandon him when, like Louis, he's framed for a crime. And, like Louis, he will ultimately be redeemed through the help of his black co-star, with Kevin Hart sliding into the Eddie Murphy role.
Get Hard, alas, is no Trading Places. Though it shares the critique of wealthy privilege and racial stereotyping that undergirded Landis's groundbreaker, this is a broader, duller, and more haphazard movie, one in which the gags—some funny, some not—drive the story, rather than the other way around.
The central joke of the film is that, faced with 30 days to prepare for a ten-year sentence in San Quentin (because that’s what happens to white-collar criminals), James commits to “getting hard” enough to survive behind bars. The person he chooses to give him a correctional tutorial is car-wash man Darnell Lewis (Hart), whom he assumes, on the basis of race, must have done time at one time or another. In fact, Darnell is a working-class striver and small-business owner who’s never gotten so much as a parking ticket. But because he needs $30,000 for a down payment on a house in a safer neighborhood for his family (a nice moment finds him on the phone with a mortgage company: “Aren’t you supposed to be a predatory lender? Prey on me”), Darnell pretends to be the tough black con that James is looking for. “You don’t have to be a thug to portray a thug,” he explains to his skeptical wife.
From this premise, the movie (directed by Etan Cohen from a script he co-wrote with Jay Martel and Ian Roberts) unfolds as a series of uneven set pieces: Darnell tries to make James physically tough; he tries to make him proficient at man-on-man sex (more on this in a moment); he tries to get him hooked up with a racist white prison gang; he tries to get him hooked up with an amiably murderous black prison gang; and so on.
The film has its share of funny bits, and both stars are well within their comic comfort zones. But many of the wealth-related jokes feel flat and dated (James attended boarding school with “the Murdochs and the bin Ladens”; when shocked, he exclaims “for the love of Greenspan!”), and the gags involving the black gang indulge in precisely the stereotypes that the movie theoretically seeks to undermine. And there is, of course, the grammar-school double entendre of the movie’s title. “You made me hard, so hard,” James tells Darnell appreciatively at one point. “You got me so hard. There was a moment when I stopped being hard, but then I thought of you and I got hard again.” Get it?
This exquisite comedy of tumescence is merely the mildest variation of the movie’s endless—endless—parade of gay sex jokes. (Because: prison.) The gags aren't edgy or clever, and over time they lose the capacity even to offend. What they are is lazy and tedious and ultimately more than touch embarrassing, return trip after return trip to a well that was dry to begin with.
So what does Get Hard tell us about Will Ferrell’s career? Certainly nothing good, and perhaps nothing at all. He’s at an age by which most comic actors have begun testing themselves, experimenting with other forms of comedy and, in many cases, drama. But with a handful of exceptions (Stranger Than Fiction, Everything Must Go, Casa de Mi Padre, and his villainous voice work in Megamind and The Lego Movie), Ferrell has stuck to the formulaic farce that made him a star, even as his roles have been shifting from antic instigator to bewildered straight man. At just the time we might have hoped he’d find new ways to get harder, Ferrell seems instead to have gone soft.