There are no sure bets in cinema, especially when it comes to comedy. In order for humor to land properly, all of the pieces have to fall together just so, and no amount of buzzworthy comedians can serve as a bonding agent if it simply isn’t working. Sometimes filmmakers are off by a smidgen, but in the case of Night School, director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Undercover Brother) missed the mark altogether. Aiming to coast by on the goodwill of its stars, this lifeless late-September paycheck is charming in intermittent bursts, but it doesn’t put in any of the legwork necessary to pack much of a punch.
Ashamed that he dropped out of high school when his uphill battle with formal education got the better of him, Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) has been living a lie, keeping his past a secret from his chic, successful girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke). However, when Teddy finds himself without a job, he must schlep back to his old stomping ground to get his GED. Unfortunately for him, the intense principal (Taran Killam) is his former nemesis and the night school teacher (Tiffany Haddish) takes his educational journey much more seriously than Teddy does, and he and the other struggling pupils (Mary Lynn Rajskub, Romany Malco, Rob Riggle, Al Madrigal, Anne Winters, and Fat Joe) must bust their humps in order to pass the final exam.
While there are sporadic laughs throughout, Night School suffers from a tremendous amount of dead air. Its weakest moments reek of a script that served more as a suggestion than as any sort of structured blueprint. Banking on the playful charisma of the project’s uproarious stars, the overstuffed writers’ room (featuring the credited efforts of Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg, Matthew Kellard, and, of course, Hart himself) didn’t feel the need to include much in the way of actual jokes. Instead, the set appears to have operated primarily in the realm of improvisation, with far too much of the performers’ awkward, often flat riffing making it into the final cut of the film, leading to a distracting and bloated runtime. Editor Paul Millspaugh clearly holds a laissez-faire approach to his craft, subscribing to the doctrine of quantity over quality. It would appear that the first draft of the film was allow to become the only draft were it not for the barrage of audio mismatched to lip movements.
Of the jokes that were mapped out, many of them feel terribly outdated, and not just because many of them are out of sync with the current cultural climate of heightened awareness. Yes, this is the sort of movie where the language barrier and a homophobic fear of anal sex are often used as punchlines, but that isn’t the only reason this script appears as if it were sitting on a studio shelf for a decade. Many of the gags simply are of a different era; elementary pratfalls and lazy gross out humor don’t land if we expect them. But the movie is keen to repeat a series of clichéd comedy beats we’ve seen in countless other projects, including many which also starred Mr. Hart.
Thankfully, the six credited writers were savvy enough in their narrative to spread out their energy amongst the cast, not just the prominent leads. Many of the supporting players are given a moment in the spotlight, even if their parts rarely require more than a single, underdeveloped character trait. Asked to anchor the movie for the rest of its runtime, Kevin Hart does pretty much exactly what is expected of him. We’ve reached the point where roles are written specifically for him (and also sometimes penned by his own hand, apparently) and they are almost indistinguishable from one another. They are simply his stand-up persona placed in some wild and wacky scenario. It is, of course, Tiffany Haddish who is able to shine brightest in Night School. She is able to display deeper layers to her abilities as a performer, rather than simply relying on her prowess as a brash wildcard. However, the closest her role comes to having any discernible character arc is a third-act reveal of her sexuality, and it’s only included as an excuse for why she and Kevin Hart don’t fall for one another.
It’s difficult to wholly dismiss Night School. It drags as it lingers on specific jokes for entirely too long, but there’s an undeniable level of joy to the pair of Haddish and Hart that shows promise in spite of the dull, ramshackle extended sitcom pilot they are wading knee deep in. This plays like the messy, floundering dress rehearsal for the stimulating farce they will ultimately make together somewhere down the road. Once Night School gets its digital release, some brave soul will most assuredly sift through the sludge and compile the best scenes for a YouTube video. This is probably the only cut of the film that’s genuinely worth your time.