Night School showcases both the perils and rewards of the high-concept comedy. The idea practically sells itself: Kevin Hart has to take night classes to get his high school degree, and Tiffany Haddish plays his suffer-no-bullshit teacher. It’s inspired casting, to be sure. The stars may be our two most talented and energetic motormouths, but they work different angles. His shtick is often built on agitation and anxiety — the more he talks, the more nervous he seems — while hers is built on a surreal, almost freakish bluster.
But first, there’s a whole lot of story to get through. Hart plays Teddy, whom we see early on in a flashback set in 2001, as he blows an SAT-like test after realizing he doesn’t understand a thing on the page. Howling with both pride and resentment, Teddy drops out of high school, vowing to be more successful than everybody else in the room. Flash-forward to the present, and he’s driving a Porsche with his beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) by his side. He appears to have made it, just as he promised. But things aren’t so rosy: He works at a BBQ emporium and lives paycheck to paycheck, spending all his money on impressing the way-out-of-his-league Lisa.
One catastrophic (and pretty funny) gas-grill propane tank mishap later, Teddy needs a new job. His pal Marvin (Ben Schwartz), a financial analyst, tells him he can get Teddy hired at his firm — but only if Teddy gets his GED. So, our hero enrolls at a night class taught by the chatty, profane and filter-free Carrie (Haddish). Initial complication: The two have already met, thanks to a traffic altercation during which she called him a “burnt leprechaun.” Additional complication: The school is run by his former nemesis Stewart (Taran Killam), a judgmental nerd who picked on Teddy remorselessly back in the day.
None of these elements is enough to fuel a whole movie, so Teddy has a whole class of fellow goofballs and dropouts to meet. Among them are Mila (Anne Winters), a wealthy delinquent who needs a degree to stay out of juvie; Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a repressed, overworked housewife living with her family out of her mom’s laundry room; Bobby (Fat Joe), a convict Skyping in from prison; and Luis (Al Madrigal), an undocumented immigrant who, it turns out, lost his waiting job thanks to Teddy’s attempts to get out of paying a bill in an earlier scene.
You’d expect that director Malcolm D. Lee and his team of six (six!) screenwriters would have plenty of fun bouncing these oddballs against one another, especially with Haddish and Hart in the mix. And, to be fair, the talented supporting cast does shine in stray moments — a choice line here, a nice visual gag there. But here we crash into the annoying side of high-concept, the part where the filmmakers actually have to pretend to care about the story they’re trying to tell. And Night School spends way too much time dealing with an attempt by Teddy and his classmates to steal an important midterm exam, and working a subplot about Stewart trying to show up Teddy, and paying off the uneven dynamic between Teddy and his beloved, increasingly frustrated Lisa, whom of course he has not told that he’s in night school.
These are sitcom episode setups at best, and they’re not handled with verve or originality here, so these scenes play like filler. Or, frankly, attempts at avoidance: The film seems determined not to unleash its two stars, and a movie billed as a Haddish-Hart face-off winds up, at least in its first half, not giving them much interesting to do.
But when Night School does work, it can be glorious. It rallies after Carrie discovers Teddy is suffering from a number of learning disabilities and tries to find ways to help him focus. The movie at this point launches into hilarious set pieces wherein she basically beats the shit out of him in a mixed martial arts octagon. The sequence appears to be a fantasy, so no need to call the cops on filmmakers promoting corporal punishment as a method of dealing with learning disabilities. But it’s interesting that the movie only truly comes into its own when it carves out this weird metaphorical space where one of its two leads can hilariously torment the other. As you’d suspect, Haddish and Hart are more than game. Which might make you wonder why Night School doesn’t take more risks and truly let its freak flag fly.