Culture

Get Hard Is Smart, While We’re Young Is Insufferable

The former satirizes liberals’ stereotypes of race; the latter romanticizes shallow social climbers.

The commercially successful and self-proclaimed socialist playwright Tony Kushner joined the bandwagon in praising the HBO black-crime series The Wire as “smart, unflinching, and emotionally difficult.” He even praised the show’s gay drug dealer Omar (President Obama’s admitted favorite character) as “supernaturally gifted.” The Left loves its condescending black stereotypes. In Get Hard, comic actor Kevin Hart does a variation on the criminal characters played by almost the entire cast of The Wire – a satirical tour de farce that shames liberals for their susceptibility to racial and political bias. 

Hart is not “supernaturally gifted.” His box-office successes with low and obvious comedies (The Wedding Ringer, for one) don’t tickle me the way the movies of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Marlon Wayans have. Get Hard, though, surpasses his previous efforts. It centers on the story of “incarceration expert” Darnell Lewis (Hart), who prepares convicted executive James King (Will Ferrell) to serve his upcoming sentence for fraud; the premise is winningly smart, unflinching, and ideologically complicated.

Lewis in fact is a law-abiding black family man who wants to finance his own car-wash business. He is only pretending to be an ex-con, but King, an aloof white millionaire who lives in a Hollywood mansion, willingly believes Lewis’s miscreant shtick.

With 30 days to go before King’s prison sentence begins, Lewis and King riff on a masculine survival crash course. The title comically alludes to a cultural shift in values since Bob Rafelson’s 1975 Stay Hungry: A defensive coarsening replaces the former all-American drive to succeed; the reference to erection suggests that we now pornographically fetishize macho traits. These traits include language, dress, and grooming styles from baldness to beards that have trickled upward from prison subculture. As Ferrell’s King learns to cuss, fight, and display “mad-dogging” facial expressions, he relishes “an ambrosia of primal sensations.” (Kushner should be so honest.) It’s the perfectly clueless flip side of Hart’s Lewis admitting “I don’t have to be a thug to portray a thug.”

Though Get Hard is a minor film, it’s pertinent social satire. It reveals how easily The Wire’s stereotypes can arouse predictable responses, including the usually unacknowledged mix of fear and pleasure — satirized adroitly by Hart, Ferrell, and writer-director Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder). King has the statistic “one in three black men will find themselves incarcerated” in his head along with the usual attendant fantasies. The frequently, shamelessly, hilariously nude Ferrell makes himself the exposed buffoon-victim of racial and political stereotypes, as he haplessly mimes the black thug of popular imagination — one of the best parodies of its kind since the “Be Black Baby” sequence in Brian DePalma’s 1970 Hi, Mom!

At its funniest, Get Hard undermines Kushner’s self-satisfied clichés about The Wire’s black underclass. It also refutes our president’s oft-repeated “That’s not who we are,” as a hollow reproof of bad-guy admiration.

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#related#While We’re Young, about a white, middle-class Brooklyn couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who befriend and emulate a hipster couple in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), is not a comedy. That writer-director Noah Baumbach doesn’t realize this makes the film insufferable. Baumbach lacks self-awareness the same way his solipsistic characters do. This is his eighth film that demonstrates the apparently incurable egotism of New York elites who think their self-centered hang-ups are of world importance.

Baumbach can’t get his story straight. As Josh and Cornelia Srebnik, Stiller and Watts act snidely superior to those who want in on their glamorous professions (he made a little-seen documentary called The Power Elite, and she’s the daughter of a famous documentarian). Their vanity is roused and soon offended by Jamie and Darby, the bourgeois Brooklyn upstarts played by Driver and Seyfried. These twentysomethings are the type of hipsters who hold street fairs and make artisanal ice creams; they represent the freedom and potential Josh and Cornelia have lost. “Their apartment is full of everything we once threw out,” Josh exclaims, in a fit of envy and resentment.

The older couple’s fascination with the youngsters, and their rivalry with them, creates an antagonism that generates unpleasant angst. When Josh boasts, “I think I’m pathologically happy,” in Baumbach’s usual self-indulgent manner, he’s too bratty to reveal any larger social condition.

Baumbach merely sets the Srebniks’ narcissism against Jamie and Darby’s youthful ambition. While We’re Young’s plot imitates a cautionary All about Eve generational drama but from a single, conceited perspective. Its true subject — egotistical jealousy — hides inside the characters’ unconfessed neediness and competition, a particular New York condition, frequently glorified as “neurotic.” Childless Josh and Cornelia show similar annoyance at the new parenthood of a peer couple (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia); the nursery-jingle version of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” on the soundtrack ridicules child-rearing while scoring hipster points. This is in keeping with Baumbach’s usual tendency (as in The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg) to defend class snobbery with arrogant knowingness. It’s the same failing that Baumbach’s occasional collaborator Wes Anderson succumbed to in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

You could say While We’re Young represents a tragic decline in social mores, but then, it’s also just another Baumbach debacle. (Thankfully, there’s none of his usual scatology involving female characters, although Watts’s role in a vomiting scene comes close.) No ordinary filmmaker, Baumbach is very well connected socially, which makes him symptomatic of a disorder that so pervades contemporary culture that most critics share it while not recognizing it: They identify with and enjoy Baumbach’s cultural snootiness and constant one-upmanship. (The film opens Woody Allen–style with inapposite quotations from Ibsen’s Master Builder, and several Vivaldi-scored montages imitate the Nouvelle Vague.) It’s as if critics themselves were climbing the social ladder right by Baumbach’s side.

Baumbach’s deranged values become evident in a public showdown at Lincoln Center, where Cornelia’s father is being honored; Josh interrupts the ceremony to expose Jamie as a tall dybuk, a demonic doppelgänger. This clash of Bernard Malamud–style moralizing with Seinfeld shamelessness traduces both influences. It leads to an inane speech (by Charles Grodin as a documentary sage) about “the truth of experience” and the essence of filmmaking. “We weren’t trying to be objective,” Grodin’s character says. “We were making films about people more interesting than we are.” (He’s referring to a documentary about black poverty.) That false empathy buoyed by egotism is the most laughable — thus revealing — moment in the picture. But Baumbach probably doesn’t realize that, either.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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