The reasonable success of "Get Hard" this past weekend was a triumph in a genre that's badly needed some hits.
The R-rated comedy had looked dead and buried for several years (if you didn't see "The Change-Up," trust me, and consider yourself lucky). But the category has now been on a bit of an upswing.
Last year saw the funny "Neighbors" hit the magic $150-million box office number. "Let's Be Cops" got surprisingly close to $100 million for a low-budget August afterthought. And even "Tammy," one of the lesser offerings in the Melissa McCarthy raunch oeuvre, didn't do as badly as you think. Now comes the first R-rated comedy of 2015, and it's a solid performer.
But the success of "Get Hard" also marks something more notable. It's one of the few movies in the R-rated comedy genre to tackle socially relevant issues. True, it tackled them in a broad, arguably easy (and inarguably crass) way -- you don't earn your stripes as an R-rated comedy, apparently, without extended riffs on prison rape.
The movie has taken a fair share of heat for some of its jokes. In a widely quoted Coming Soon.net review, one critic wrote that with this movie we "finally get a comedy that homophobes, racists and generally stupid people can all enjoy together!" There's an argument to be made that a smarter class commentary lurks within, perhaps beaten down by the relentless process of studio testing and editing.
But "Get Hard" is interesting because it undeniably takes on these topical issues in the first place. Etan Cohen's film examines the assumptions Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell, as a working-class carwash employee and upper-class hedge-fund manager, have about each other, both in race and class terms, and derives quite a lot of its humor from there. It's not exactly "Trading Places" — the paragon of class-based comedy — but the filmmakers certainly saw and liked that movie.
The R-rated comedy has been an unusually amorphous term that describes a wide range of stories — perhaps what happens when you use the explicitness of the content level for the term usually meant to denote the content itself. There's the high-school hijinks of "American Pie," college hijinks of "Animal House," the pre-wedding comedy of "Bridesmaids" and "The Hangover," the "sweet familial message of "Knocked Up" and even more left-field entries like the horror sendups of "Scary Movie."
For all the genre's breadth, though, none of these movies are trying to take on social topics. How members of different races see each other is something only a select few R-rated comedies have really attempted (e.g. the "Harold and Kumar" series). And the idea of examining class and wealth distribution in an R-rated comedy -- what with all the bathroom and bedroom humor to be mined -- is even rarer. R-rated comedies, God bless 'em, aren't here to make you think about the real world. They're here to make you forget about it.
Yet "Get Hard" has a number of scenes that are meant to make you question race and class, even including one sequence that sends up an Aryan Nation gathering. It's an easy target to be sure, but in its own safer, more caricaturish Hollywood way it also offers a way for us to look at our own prejudices.
There were even some moments during editing when Cohen said he thought of Ferguson, playing out outside outside the suite walls -- a parallel, if an unlikely one, to what "Selma" helmer Ava DuVernay described as her feeling as she was editing her film last summer. No one would ever confuse the two movies. But no one would make the Ferguson comment about "Deuce Bigalow" either.
Will the solid box office for "Get Hard" mean a greater willingness for studios to greenlight R-rated comedies in this vein? It remains to be seen. But it can't hurt. The next time a screenwriter sits down to their computer, or an executive to a pitch meeting, they might be a little more willing to tackle issues that, frankly, cinema in the broad-audience era has neglected (you're more likely these days to find such commentaries on Comedy Central) -- to slip in "a little medicine with the sugar," as Cohen puts it.
As filmmakers were shooting "Get Hard," a draft of the shooting script called for Ferrell's character to defend by name the tax loophole that he and his firm enacted, an unusually specific parsing of capitalism. Between takes, Cohen recalled, Ferrell deadpanned to him: "This is good. Some of it may actually make it in the movie." It didn't. But when it comes to the persistent escapism of R-rated comedy, some noble intentions count too.