I watch over 200 movies a year, and there’s no film in recent memory quite like Night School. Coming off the commercial and critical success of Girls Trip, Night School’s director Malcolm D. Lee takes two of comedy’s biggest – and often raunchiest – stars and puts them in a PG picture stressing the value of education. The result is a well-intentioned comedy that despite bursting with potential, struggles to achieve a passing grade.
Comedy superstar Kevin Hart plays Teddy, a man who appears to have it all. Early on we find him cruising around in his Porsche with his stunning girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) by his side. But Teddy is living a lie. He works as a BBQ salesman and puts himself in debt paying for luxuries that impress Lisa. On the night Teddy proposes to his beloved, tragedy strikes, and a gas leak blows up his workplace. Suddenly he finds himself out of work with no prospects because he’s a high school drop out.
Teddy wants to work at an investment firm with his best friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), but he can’t apply until he gets his GED, so he signs up for night school classes at his old high school. He finds himself in a classroom filled with quirky characters; an emotionally repressed former teen-mom, a disgruntled waiter, and a prison convict who joins in through Skype. And reigning them all in is their over-worked teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), a no-nonsense educator with a heart of gold. With the aid of Carrie and his classmates, Teddy works to graduate and get a great job before Lisa discovers he’s a broke-ass liar.
If there is a feel-good misfit-comedy handbook, Night School copies it word for word. Does this sound familiar? A band of outcasts with little in common slowly bond as they work towards a common goal. The viewer knows every beat this film will hit long before the story gets them there. Both good films and bad films rely on these old conventions. But a good movie finds breathing room within those established margins and still creates compelling characters, endearing relationships, and an engaging story.
Night School aims for these essential targets but gets there using a cheat sheet. Story-wise, it plays on our expectations and moves characters to where we know they’ll end up without putting in the screen time and character development to get them there. We know the Night School crew will become a family, but how they reach that point feels unearned. Characters go from throwing shade at each other to besties without any relationship defining moments. Wonky editing and a lazy script make the plot and its emotional beats feel out of sync.
Great casting from top to bottom saves Night School from becoming a total dumpster fire. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, the material isn’t funny, and the weak script isn’t doing the cast any favours either. Casting the likes of Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Keith David help elevate the banal material into the realm of chuckle-worthy. Barely.
The story here, though, is Hart and Haddish; comedy’s reigning superstar teaming up with comedy’s hottest rising star – think Richard Pryor passing the torch to Eddie Murphy. Comedians spend years honing material that will never match what these two achieve with a sideways glance. No one does wild-eyed exasperation like Hart, and nobody exudes ebullient hostility like Haddish. The duo works well together and finds a hilarious rhythm whether offending each other or teaming up. These two could walk on set with pneumonia and strike comedy gold without working off a script. And that would be a better alternative than what this picture delivers. Knock this film for the lazy writing and hack job editing, but the two lead performances are unassailable.
Night School isn’t a great film, but its heart is in the right place. It looks at our education system and how it’s set up to fail students with extra needs. Carrie is a low-paid teacher struggling to get by, but she might as well be a superhero. Carrie may not wear spandex and a cape, but she does save lives. She’s forced to work nights so she can afford her rent, but she still devotes 100% of herself to her night school students. In an era of educational budget cuts and over-sized classrooms, how many teachers have the time, energy, and patience to do the same?
This picture shows that with hard work and the right teacher, even people who slip through the cracks (immigrants, wayward teens, convicts) may turn their life around. Night School also empathetically draws attention to people struggling with learning disabilities and those working to help them succeed. This silly film doesn’t gloss over the embarrassment that comes with learning challenges, and the commitment required to overcome this adversity. But this is where the praise ends.
Viewed in the context of Lee’s career, Night School is a huge disappointment. His last film, Girls Trip, is a box office sensation and a pop culture touchstone; the type of film that reinvigorates middling careers. Night School is doomed to be forgotten by the time it hits VOD. Lee’s filmography is filled with earnest characters who are defined by their sincere relationships. Even a raunchy comedy like Girls Trips, at its core, is about the love and devotion between old friends. Night School’s, biggest travesty is that no one feels like anything resembling an actual person, and no relationship is worth caring about.
Even judged on its own merits, Night School isn’t a good movie. It’s held back by too many stale jokes, and a story that makes less sense the longer it goes on. But it’s squandering the potential of its two stars that keeps this film off the 2018-comedy honour roll.
- Release Date: 9/28/2018