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Friendship Capers

by Ross Douthat

In Central Intelligence, a part fish-out-of-water, part odd-couple comedy of espionage, Kevin Hart plays a suburban accountant who gets in way over his head with spies and gunplay and general mayhem. And that “way over his head” is quite literal: Hart stands five-foot-four, and his transition from stand-up comedy to movie stardom has consistently made the most of his stature, by casting him alongside hulking or lumbering co-stars (Will Ferrell in Get Hard, Ice Cube in Ride Along) and letting him freak out in their imposing shadows.

These movies have not been particularly good, but Central Intelligence is a more interesting vehicle, mostly because this time Hart’s co-star is Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock, whose sunny style and imposing substance make him the perfect foil for Hart’s initially uptight, eventually manic comic approach.

Basically Central Intelligence is a multi-racial version of The In-Laws, the old Carter-era comedy in which Alan Arkin played a dentist who gets roped into a CIA plot by his future son-in-law’s secret-agent dad (Peter Falk) — except that, instead of a wedding, the engine for the plot is a looming high-school reunion, which puts Hart’s Calvin Joyner, a high-school golden boy who married his high-school sweetheart but is now a dissatisfied late-thirtysomething who still hasn’t had kids, back in touch with his old classmate Robert Weirdicht (say it out loud), a bullied fat kid who has reinvented himself as, well, The Rock: a buff international man of mystery with the nom de guerre of “Bob Stone.”

It turns out that Stone still idolizes Calvin, or at least the Calvin he remembers — the prom king/star athlete/most-likely-to-succeed senior, and the only person to show him any kindness during a bullying episode that left him stark naked in front of a high-school assembly. Indeed, despite his pecs and deadly skills in hand-to-hand combat, Stone hasn’t gotten over high school: He loves Sixteen Candles, wears a fanny pack, drops dated pop-culture references, and gets a thousand-yard stare whenever memories of his picked-on past resurface.

But he also has plans for his old friend beyond hero worship and nostalgia. Accused of treason and on the run from his superiors in the CIA, he needs Calvin’s accountant skills to help clear his name and catch the real traitor, “the Black Badger,” before the Badger sells top-secret documents to a greasy-haired bad guy and his goons. “Are you in or out?” he asks Calvin. “I’m out!” Calvin shrieks, but to no avail, and he shrieks it again and again through various death-defying escapades, which the preternaturally sunny Stone seems to regard as just one crazy romp after another.

Johnson brings a wonderfully ingenuous quality to the part, walking the line between holy innocence and insane solipsism, with just enough total weirdness woven in to make it reasonable for Calvin to worry that maybe the CIA is right about him. And he and Hart aren’t just a great pair visually (huge and small, placid and manic, omnicompetent and spastic); they also have the personal chemistry the movie needs to sell us on their unexpected friendship, their intertwining back-to-high-school journeys: Stone’s quest to finally put his demons to rest, and Calvin’s reluctant search for the man in full that he once seemed destined to become.

Which makes it a pity that the script isn’t one standard deviation wittier, that the movie never achieves a level of hilarity worthy of its co-stars’ chemistry. A few of the action set pieces have some inspired slapstick — particularly a long take in Calvin’s Dunder Mifflin–esque office, in which Stone engages in hand-to-hand combat armed only with a banana — and a few of the laugh lines really land. (Wait for the Scientology joke.) But too many scenes feel as if the writers came up with a solid comic premise and then didn’t work hard enough on the specific beats.

A sequence in which Stone impersonates a marriage counselor and mediates between Calvin and his unknowing wife (Danielle Nicolet), for instance, had me chuckling lightly at the expressions on Johnson’s face; in a great comedy, it would have had me rolling on the floor. And most of the supporting cast (Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul, Jason Bateman, even Melissa McCarthy in a cameo) are much better than the lines they’re delivering — as though, again, the filmmakers found the right actors and then assumed that their dialogue would take care of itself.

So greatness eludes Central Intelligence. But unlike a lot of lazy comedies, it’s good enough that you’ll leave the theater wishing it had been just a little better. And credit for that goes to Hart and Johnson, who deserve to share the screen again.

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