There is a moment that really stuck with me from the interview HitFix's Louis Virtel conducted with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart for “Get Hard” which posted yesterday.
Virtel asks, “You are both very smart and funny people. During the scene in the movie where you kind of do a mockingly effeminate voice [to Hart] and you gag at a dick as though it's the worst thing that can happen to a straight guy [to Ferrell], in a gay situation, did you think: this is mildly mean spirited or at the very least, a little bit dated?”
Before Hart responds, the camera holds on Ferrell's face for a just a moment. Ferrell doesn't look annoyed. He doesn't look angry. He isn't trying to force a smile. He just looks sort of sad.
“Get Hard,” which Drew McWeeny reviewed out of SXSW, is the directorial debut of longtime screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”) and has a pretty simple set up. An obnoxiously rich white guy names James (Ferrell) gets framed for money laundering and is given a 10-year prison sentence in a maximum-security prison. With just 30 days until he has to report, Ferrell's character recruits Darnell (Hart), the owner of the car washing business in his company's headquarters, to toughen him up for jail.
From the moment James brings the subject of his incarceration up Darnell immediately goes into a diatribe about he's going to get essentially man-raped. Poked, prodded, etc. James won't be able to escape it. And, the focus on this subject matter does not stop. For at least 20 straight minutes (and possibly more) James and Darnell only deal with his fear of being forced to have sex with men in prison. Eventually, what should have been his biggest concern — getting beat up or potentially stabbed — is addressed, but the no. 1 issue is always the fear of being forced to have gay sex. Strangely, the word rape is barely used to describe this. It's all presented as though he'd literally have no choice but to consent. At one point in the movie, Darnell takes James to a gay bar (clearly an attempt to recreate the infamous Abbey in West Hollywood without shooting there) and makes him go into a stall and attempt to suck another man's penis so he'll be prepared for what awaits him. James breaks down and cries and the image of a real penis becomes a recurring negative throughout the film.
Perhaps if it was one joke or even the context of one particular scene it wouldn't stand out as much, but this storyline never seems to end. And, frankly, I do not see, no matter what the filmmakers intentions were, how it's not homophobic. The movie also has been criticized for some of its racial depictions, and that's potentially an entirely different conversation that I was sadly too distracted to focus on.
As I watched this bit continue from scene to scene to scene the laughter from what was mostly a filler audience* did not dissipate. Clearly, this “played” to many in the 500+ theater, but there were also sections that were very quiet. I was in one of them. As an openly gay man who has worked in the industry for over 15 years I didn't find myself getting angry about what I was watching. Instead, I just started trying to figure out how this could have happened. How did it even get this far? I might have expected this sort of material from lesser talents, but a movie that starred and was produced by Ferrell? How did this happen?
*A filler audience is composed of people recruited to a free screening before a movie opens. Studios often bring them in for critics screenings when they believe the movie will “play” better to a general audience. This, in theory, is supposed to tell the media the movie works. Every studio uses this recruited audiences on a regular basis.
This is the Will Ferrell, who along with his partner Adam McKay, founded and still own Funny or Die. A company that has found incredible ways to promote gay comedians, actors and filmmakers (some of whom I consider friends); a company that produces “Gay of Thrones” and produces the very gay-friendly video podcast “Throwing Shade.” They have produced numerous pro-gay marriage skits in-house since the site began. (remember the “Prop 8 The Musical” bit?). This is the Ferrell and McKay who found a way to make a closeted gay character in the “Anchorman” series (David Koechner's Champ Kind) funny and friendly (even if he wants to get a little too close to Ron Burgundy). This is the Ferrell who pretty much ruled as the obviously gay Mugatu in 2001's “Zoolander” where audiences were laughing at the ridiculousness of the character and not because of his clear sexuality. Ferrell and McKay are smart, talented and progressive people in Hollywood.
Is this why Ferrell looked so sad?
In an interview with AP also published yesterday and obviously an attempt to deal with the backlash, McKay, who also produced and was given story credit, is quoted as saying, “Any individual going to maximum security prison would be afraid of violence and sexual assault. To equate that with homosexuality is ridiculous.” He also referred to the current criticism as “lazy journalism.”
But wait, there's more. He also noted, “Given that we're a country with runaway income inequality, more people in jail than any other country, this is what people are crowing about? Trying to in a funny way deal with these issues?…It really kind of got me mad. It's just cheap is what it is.”
All due respect, Mr. McKay, I think you protest too much. If this is the case, then why is a majority of the movie about the sex fears and not the violence fears? Honestly, I'd be much more concerned about the violence first, but that's such a secondary issue for Ferrell's character. Anything having to do with gay sex is presented as beyond disgusting and the worst thing possible. Not the violence. Moreover, not one person is going to leave the theater thinking prison overcrowding is an issue they should look into (it's absolutely not addressed in the context of the picture).
As for Ferrell's co-star, Kevin Hart is another very smart guy who has been around the industry for a long, long time. He didn't think this crossed the line at all? Really?
There is so much that puzzles me about this. How could this version of the movie get through Warner Bros. production executives review process? It's hard to imagine this didn't come up in test screenings after filming. Moreover, the first studio screening should have been a huge red flag for the marketing and publicity executives (or maybe when they were sent the script?). Did test scores indicate that audiences responded with “Oh, it's not a big deal”? Did the filmmakers refuse to listen? Did they cut stuff out that was even worse thinking it wouldn't be as bad? (It's happened before) This is the studio that championed “Her,” “Inherent Vice” and “Cloud Atlas” over the past few years. How could they not realize what they had on their hands? (And don't get me started on why SXSW let it screen there). It's all so puzzling.
You might be wondering: “OK, they stretched it out a bit. It's an R-rated comedy. People know what they are getting into.” Sure, the Governor of Ohio is about to sign a bill that will allow people to discriminate against gay people based on religious grounds. There are still too many gay teenagers committing suicide in 2015. Maybe I remember what it was like to be a kid wanting to run for the hills after hear people constantly laugh and disparage gay people in pop culture.
But, hey, I get it. It's just a freakin' movie. Kid's don't pay attention to any of this stuff, right? How silly of us to even broach the subject.
I dunno, I guess that's why I'm not angry about “Get Hard.” I'm just sad.