You have quite the progressive pedigree: two dads—one black, one white. You were written by Tupac Shakur, but your melody and chorus is taken from the 1986 Bruce Hornsby song, “The Way It Is”. While your soft-rock side is rooted in the economic hardships faced by many during the recession of the 1980s, your rap half reflects the social issues of the 1990s, exploring themes of racial inequality and poverty. Nearly twenty years later, many of the things your two dads talked about - racism, poverty, drug addiction, and exploding prison populations - haven’t really improved in America.
Being an anthem for social change carries a lot of responsibility. It can probably feel pretty heavy. Maybe you needed a little break, and that’s why you decided to appear in an R-rated comedy. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for your inclusion in a film that’s essentially a 100-minute long prison-rape joke.
Get Hard is about Jack King, a wealthy hedge fund manager wrongly convicted of fraud who has thirty days to get his affairs in order before starting a 10-year prison sentence at San Quentin. He wrongfully assumes that his African-American car detailer, Darnell, has been to prison, so hires him in order to learn to survive behind bars.
Systemic racism and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor are topics that Tupac often explored. These same topics are fertile ground for satire, and, with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart being two of the most popular comedians working today, it was only a matter of time before someone pulled all these elements together. It’s a formula that has worked countless times in the past. And here, it’s a formula that should have worked a little harder. Based on the trailer, I knew better than to expect Get Hard to reach Trading Places, Blazing Saddles or Stir Crazy-levels of comedic subversion. But I hoped that it would at least surpass Big Stan and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry-levels of stupidity. It doesn’t.
The film starts strong, focusing on how insulated James is in his 1% universe and how determined Darnell is to provide a better life for his wife and daughter. The whole plot hinges on the preconceived notion that James, using the statistic that one in three African-American males will be incarcerated, automatically assumes Darnell is a criminal. While trying to justify his scheme to his wife, Darnell says, “I’ll just be every stereotype he already thinks I am!” It’s a pointed statement for a promising premise—until Darnell actually shows up at James’ mansion for the first day of training. That’s when the film decides, fuck it, here are all the anal sex jokes ever, drops the mic, and walks away.
The film is called Get Hard, after all.
Tupac knew that when a mic was in his hand it was his responsibility to use it as a tool for social change (his Black Panther parents probably had something to do with shaping this philosophy). All great artists aspire to hold a mirror up to society in hopes of inspiring change. Get Hard fails not because it isn’t funny, but because it squanders an opportunity to be funny and important.
First-time feature director Etan Cohen is no stranger to biting social commentary, having penned Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy, both of which gleefully skewered American culture. Writers Jay Martel and Ian Roberts write for Key & Peele, one of the sharpest comedy shows on television. Story contributor Adam McKay has had huge success working with Will Ferrell on SNL, Anchorman, and Funny or Die. You’d think that if anyone could create something that is both hilarious and culturally relevant, it would be them. The director and stars have been particularly defensive in interviews, each claiming that they worked very hard to find the right balance between comedy and commentary.
Oh, but don’t you believe them.
I wasn’t offended by the flaccid prosthetic penis slapped in James’ face, or the one-dimensional portrayal of women (horny WASP golddigger, drug-dealer’s ho, etc.), or even the gay panic subtext. I was offended by the film’s laziness. It confuses being shocking and obnoxious with being edgy. Instead of finding the line and cleverly crossing it, it finds the line and takes a greasy, self-righteous dump on it. And yet, despite it all, Ferrell and Hart manage to deliver a few laughs. Unfortunately, most are about as cheap as the film’s faux-prison sets and unimaginative camera work.
In one of your lyrics, Tupac sings, “we ain’t ready to see a black president.” It’s sad that he didn’t live to see his country elect one. But Obama’s America still isn’t much different than the one your lyrics describe. To be fair to the makers of Get Hard, no one could have predicted the impact of the Ferguson or Eric Garner tragedies that took place during filming. But when James yells, “this is post-racial America, assholes,” it’s a sentiment that might have been better left on the cutting room floor. It also goes to show just how tone-deaf the filmmakers are. But what should we have expected from people who still think the height of comedy is seeing Will Ferrell’s pasty white ass?
That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.