Get Hard

On paper, the central joke of “Get Hard” is that a white-collar criminal (Will Ferrell) hires someone he believes is a tough felon (Kevin Hart) to help him prepare for San Quentin, where he’s headed a month from now. In practice, the central joke is this: Hey, did you know that in prison, there is a lot of RAPE? Where the men rape each other? With their penises? Boy howdy, what a rapey time they all have, there in the prisons!

I don’t mean to suggest that a comedy about a scared rich dude heading for state prison shouldn’t address the subject of prison rape, and even joke about it. Honestly, it would be more conspicuous NOT to mention it. But there are funnier ways to do it than by merely repeating “You’re going to get raped” over and over, which is essentially what “Get Hard” does for a total of about 15 minutes of its runtime. When Ferrell’s character practices threatening other prisoners with sexual assault, saying things things like, “You’re about to get twenty likes on Instaf***!” — well, it may not be brilliant, but at least it’s an actual joke. There’s far too little of that.

It’s a shame, too, because when the movie isn’t obsessing over forcible sex, it has a handful of solid laughs and a couple of great scenes. Written by satirist Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder,” “Idiocracy”) and “Key & Peele” scribes Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, the story touches on racial discrimination, income inequality, and other heady subjects, often to amusing effect. (“I’m not trying to appropriate your culture,” says Ferrell, dressed like Li’l Wayne. “That’s great,” deadpans Hart. “I’ll tell the others.”)

Ferrell plays James King, a wealthy, oblivious Los Angeles financier who’s about to marry the gold-digging daughter (Alison Brie) of his boss (Craig T. Nelson) when he’s framed for embezzlement and sentenced to prison. (A rich banker steals millions from ordinary folks and then suffers actual consequences? What universe is this set in?) Operating under the racist assumption that Darnell Lewis (Hart), the black guy who washes his car, has done hard time — which he hasn’t; he’s a squeaky-clean family man — James pays him to whip him into shape so he won’t be eaten alive (and raped repeatedly) when he reports to San Quentin. (Darnell goes along with it because he needs the money for a down payment on a house.) They do spend some time learning to fight, making shivs, forming alliances with gangs, and acting tough. In one truly hilarious role-playing sequence, Darnell plays three different types of thugs who push a bewildered James around in the yard, testing his skills. Hart’s motor-mouthed energy and Ferrell’s patented cluelessness work in beautiful harmony.

But it always comes back to the rape thing. At Darnell’s suggestion, James even propositions a man at a gay bar so he can practice, um, pleasuring a gentleman orally. As with any scenario where a person has to do something he considers gross, unpleasant, or foreign, there’s comedy potential here, once you get past the self-consciously “outrageous” nature of it. But the film CAN’T get past that. The film gets as far as “I do not want to put that in my mouth!” and stops, unable to come up with anything funny to do with the idea.

Speaking as a major Will Ferrell fan who happens to be gay, I don’t find this line of humor offensive. It’s not mean-spirited, and it’s panicky straight guys, not gays, who are the target. It’s just disappointing. Ferrell is better than this (the jury’s still out on Hart), and the premise of “Get Hard” had real potential. It handles race and class issues with broad but incisive satire, getting laughs out of tough subjects. It’s with that other tough subject, the one it doesn’t know what to do with, that it gets bogged down. To paraphrase a classic “Seinfeld” line, it doesn’t offend me as a homosexual, it offends me as a comedian.

Vanity Fair

C+ (1 hr., 40 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, graphic sexual dialogue, some graphic nudity.)