Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Runtime: 111 minutes
In the contemporary discourse around film, we tend to emphasise the role of the director. Night School, however, is essentially everything but directed by producer, co-writer and star Kevin Hart, but is unmistakably a product of his. This will be HartBeat Productions’ first feature film and its success would form an important part of Hart’s transition from talent to management, in the same vein as Adam Sandler.
The film itself is idiosyncratic—if you have seen any of Hart’s previous work you know what to expect: an energetic performance from Hart, along with his unique facial acting, a cast of quirky characters and the now industry standard self-deprecating humour and main-character-grows-up-and-learns-to-accept-themselves story arc. It seems Hart is a shrewd businessman; there is not a lot risk-taking in his production company’s first foray into cinema, and Night School does not set lofty goals for itself. It wants to be a profitable family comedy movie and it probably will be. However, what it is and what it wants to do are less interesting than what it is not.
The parallels to Sandler’s career are close. He also lets others direct while he does some combination of writing, acting and producing, and both HartBeat and Billy Madison Productions share the same safe, accessible comedy pitch. But while Sandler’s recent filmography is characterised by a feeling of actively searching for the minimum effort required for a production, Hart’s IPO lacks the jaded obnoxiousness. The latter seems to have taken care to avoid its humour coming across as mean-spirited, Hart himself serving as the butt of most of the jokes. It mostly avoids easy-outs with the plot and the stakes are deliberately small and personal.
This is a movie, so everyone gets a happy ending, but the resolutions are Hollywood-realistic. The typical rag-tag group of unorthodox misfits the story revolves around is made up of the teacher and class of the titular night school, played by a line-up of actors with parts in successful TV shows under their belts. Everyone knows how to bounce off each other and inject personality moment to moment, with Tiffany Haddish (Carrie) doing a lot to provide structure and keep up the momentum. No one is trying for an Oscar here, but it is the kind of cast where you are glad to know they are getting roles in movies (barring any unforeseen revelations, this is Hollywood after all), and to be honest, I like knowing that Keith David (Gerald Walker) is getting paid.
This is another area notable for what was not done. The average Hollywood film costs around $60M USD to make and advertise, Night School cost $29M. There are places where the budget shows. Scenes and locations blow by and the only place we spend any time in is the classroom. However, it does not bloat itself with over-wrought CGI and the central plot, which textually revolves around the group’s effort to get their GEDs and thematically around Teddy Walker’s (Hart) overcoming his insecurities, is laid out straightforwardly.
Overall, it works and if you like Kevin Hart you will enjoy Night School. It is not trying to shake up the formula, but it would be wrong to describe it as generic when it is so clearly someone’s creation. I am interested to see if Hart’s future productions will form a kind of commentary on the industry, what he thinks works and what does not. But one movie does not make a trend, and only time will tell if Hart makes the jump from cog to gear in the Hollywood machine.