I'm on the set of “Get Hard,” and Kevin Hart is cracking himself up.
Some context is in order. Hart, Will Ferrell, actress Edwina Finley (as Hart's wife) and Ariana Neal (as Hart's young daughter) are sitting around a table on a New Orleans soundstage. It's a dinner scene. Ferrell's character James, a business executive wrongfully convicted of tax evasion, has hired Hart's character Darnell to prep him for prison under the assumption that the car wash owner has served time.
There's just one problem: Darnell hasn't been behind bars a day in his life. In this scene, he's forced to concoct a story about his criminal past after James puts him on the spot during dinner. And by “concoct,” I mean “pass off a scene from the movie 'Boyz N the Hood' as an episode from his own life.”
“Rickaaaaay! Rickaaaaay!” Hart screams near the tail end of his monologue. He does this over multiple setups and takes. When the cameras aren't rolling, the superstar actor and comedian dissolves into giggles.
“If we were keeping a break meter of who breaks the most, my meter would break every day,” Hart tells us during a break in shooting. “I”m silly, man. I”m silly. I love to have fun while we”re working.”
L-R: Ariana Neal, Kevin Hart, Edwina Finley and Will Ferrell
It's a fascinating experience watching the scene evolve throughout the afternoon. Hart and Ferrell, both skilled improv performers, never do the exact same thing twice. I note small adjustments — Ferrell's “I'd like to blame the baboon but I think I stabbed myself” becomes “I'd like to blame the baboon but I think I did it to myself,” and as I do I develop preferences (the former version reads funnier to me).
Neal, whose age I peg at eight, is told to eat the food on her plate for real (“We can tell that you're not,” they inform her). A spit bucket is provided between takes. Hart goofs with her, sings to her. Ferrell is more restrained, less playful. Finley, perhaps best known for her work on “The Wire” and “Treme,” takes it all in with a still, confident smile.
There are a lot of funny lines here.
“That's why I wash cars now, cause I'm trying to wash the blood off my hands,” says Hart in wrapping up his “Boyz N the Hood” monologue.
“Thanks for taking the knife out,” Ferrell tells Findley in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable.
“Daddy, why did you voice change?” Neal asks Hart when he affects a gritty “thug” quality. Answers Hart: “Daddy is going back to a dark place.”
Et cetera, et cetera.
The physical disparity between Hart and Ferrell is mined as a source of comedy in the film, and in person too the difference is certainly striking: at 5'4″, Hart is nearly a full foot shorter than his co-star. It's a contrast that helps to further play up the “odd couple” pairing at the movie's heart — an energy evident not only in the world of the film but in real life as well. They are, as director Etan Cohen notes, two wildly different performers and personalities.
“They have very opposite, to me, anyway, opposite comedic energies and styles and I always feel like Will is very zen and quiet in his energy and lets the materials flow through him and Kevin is constantly creating this perpetual motion machine, creating stuff out of nothing and pulling it out of the air,” says Cohen, making his directorial debut on the film after cutting his teeth as a writer on comedies like “Idiocracy” and “Tropic Thunder.” “The two of them together, seeing opposite kinds of energy on screen is really exciting.”
It bears addressing the elephant in the room by posing a question that seems obvious but is not, apparently, so cut and dry in the filmmakers' eyes: is Ferrell's character racist? Judging from the premise it certainly feels that way, but from talking with the talent involved I get the sense that the “Anchorman” vet's “lovable doofus” screen persona may ultimately serve as a shield against those claims.
“I”ve assumed for horribly wrong reasons that he”s been incarcerated because, not because I”m a racist, but because I”m a statistical freak and my character read somewhere that 1 out of 3 African Americans has been incarcerated in their lifetime,” Ferrell tells us.
Chimes in Hart: “That”s the crazy thing. He”s not a racist at all.”
For Cohen, issues of class, not race, were much more top of mind when it came time to rewrite the script, the original draft of which was penned by Ian Roberts and Jay Martel.
“When I approached the rewrite, I had in mind movies like 'Trading Places,' [which have] a little more social satire and have a bit more something to say,” he tells us. “With movies I did like 'Idiocracy' and 'Tropic Thunder,' the real joy is [to] sneak in some social commentary and some satire, while having it really be funny.
“One of my proudest moments is still 'Ow, My Balls,' [a fake TV show in 'Idiocracy'] where it plays on every level…we can all just enjoy someone getting kicked in the balls, but also we understand that it”s a satire about media and what entertainment has become. …['Get Hard'] seemed like an opportunity to say something about class and be able to say something about the American economy while doing crazy funny stuff.”
Speaking of crazy funny stuff, “Get Hard” contains a bit so outrageous that Ferrell terms it “the riskiest thing I”ve ever done.”
“I”m always in these situations where I forget to separate what is pitched as an idea to the fact that I”m actually going to have to execute it,” says Ferrell, who notes they scheduled the gag for the very last day of production. “I remember reading 'Old School' for the first time, like reading about my character is going to streak and I”m 'oh yeah, that”s funny. I remember when people used to do that, that”s funny,' and then it”s the day you”re in the robe, standing there naked and they”re about to yell action, like 'why did I agree to do this?'”
Why, also, is there a baboon in this movie. We were all wondering. The primate is also glimpsed briefly during the prison riot segment of the film's two trailers, though from the sound of it neither Ferrell nor Hart actually filmed with the animal on set.
“He didn”t have his papers filled out, apparently. We had to shoot a separate day,” Ferrell tells us.
Hart, meanwhile, wanted no part of this monkey business from the very beginning.
“I”ll tell you how bad I am,” he says. “I saw them walking, the trainer had the baboons by the hand and they were walking and I made the driver stop the car until the baboon… I said 'I don”t want to see no attack. I don”t want to be a part. If anything happens, I don”t want to say I was there.'”
“You”re never going to see Kevin Hart with Bear Grylls on an episode of 'Man vs. Wild,'” notes Ferrell. “'Here we are with Kevin Hart in the Yucatan Peninsula, trying to survive in the jungle.'”
“You have to understand, this has nothing to do with black or white,” Hart continues. “I just don”t believe people can tame animals. I am not, listen, I have a dog. When you come to my house and you ask me is my dog trained, I”ve got to be honest, not really man. I don”t know. He could have a bad day. He might bite you. There”s a chance that he might bite you, so if you”re afraid, I get it. Don”t go near him. I can”t, I don”t believe when people tell me, 'oh he”s fine.' I see people, Etan took a picture with the baboon. I was like, why. And his teeth, the baboon”s teeth are showing in the picture. No, it won”t be me.”
“Powerfully strong, potentially aggressive animals, yeah,” says Ferrell.
“It can just rip your face off with his fingers,” says Hart.
“It”s only happened several times,” says Ferrell.
Which raises another (related) question: what, exactly, is a baboon doing in a staged prison riot at all? Hart plays coy, though Ferrell (also a producer on the film) sees fit to give us just a taste: “It”s one of Darnell”s ideas, yeah.”
“One of many,” Hart follows up. “Just keep in mind that I am taking him through a prison preparation course and I”ve never been. …So where I”m getting my research and where I”m finding the things I”m doing, we don”t know, so that will help you understand.”
“You suspected Darnell watched some episodes of 'Oz,” says Ferrell.
“I saw 'Oz' and I want to Animal Planet in between by accident,” says Hart.
Will Ferrell and co-star T.I.
It hardly needs mentioning that “Get Hard” isn't exactly family-friendly, though luckily for the creative team here the film's R-rated material fits nicely with the current climate; R-rated comedies are in vogue these days thanks to recent successes like “Neighbors,” “Ted” and the “21 Jump Street” films.
“If we tried to make it PG-13, it would be this weird feathered fish,” says Cohen. “It would just feel very unnatural to talk about prison rape without making an R rated movie…[we] just felt like it couldn”t be done and that ultimately, even if we tried to make it PG-13, we”d get an R rating and it would just be a sort worst of all worlds.”
Indeed, as producer Chris Henchy correctly notes: “Prison is not PG-13.”
“Get Hard” hits theaters on March 27.