After introducing millions of moviegoers to the combustible talents of Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip, director Malcolm D. Lee seems to make one of the smartest possible moves in Night School — casting the new phenom as one half of a two-hander, with reliable costar Kevin Hart, instead of asking her to share the spotlight in another quartet of leads. Though the picture — in which Hart must return to school to get his life back on track — proves to be less targeted than that, and sometimes risks making Haddish merely the Bridgette Wilson to Hart’s Adam Sandler in a limp Billy Madison rehash, it offers just enough verbal sparring between the two comedians to justify fans’ attention while Haddish tests her chops in less laff-centric new films as Ike Barinholtz’s The Oath.
Hart’s Teddy is a high-school dropout living well beyond his means when a freak accident costs him his job as a BBQ grill salesman. Rather than admit his situation to well-heeled fiancee Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Teddy pretends to have traded up, taking a job at a finance firm with childhood friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz, outrageous in Parks and Rec but an undervalued straight man here). In reality, to get that job he’s going to need a GED — and the only place he can think of to get one is his old school, which is now run by the nerd (Taran Killam) he used to belittle.
Teddy enrolls in the school’s nighttime GED prep program run by Haddish’s overworked Carrie Carter, and in an extended meet-your-classmates sequence, the script makes it clear it aims to be an ensemble comedy, not a duet.
However amusing the screw-ups in Terry’s class may be in their one-note ways (Mary Lynn Rajskub’s stressed-but-“blessed” mother of three gets more than one note), it’s soon clear that this will be a string of hit-and-miss comic episodes rather than an actual story. The most sustained action here is an attempt by the students to steal Carter’s midterm test, which moves the plot along but barely tries to sell us on what’s happening.
That caper does, though, provide a predictable focal point for the tension between Terry and his teacher, who in a couple of satisfying back-and-forths has called him out for his silver-tongued avoidance of hard work. (Their funny, insult-laced arguments sound like they might’ve been written by the actors instead of the six scribes credited with the screenplay.)
Thus begins the film’s redemption arc, where things come together for Teddy but the storytelling falls apart. The laziness with which half-amusing bits are stitched together here is indefensible, even for viewers who aren’t bothered by the pic’s cheap use of learning disorders as a plot device. (To oversimplify only a little: Carrie cures Teddy’s dyslexia, dyscalculia and other difficulties by knocking the crap out of him in an MMA ring and shouting “focus” at him a lot.)
As he has been in Central Intelligence and elsewhere, Hart is generous with his costar, seeming to understand that riffs adapted from his stand-up routines only go so far and he is most appealing onscreen when reacting to a more powerful personality. The film doesn’t make nearly as much of this dynamic as it might’ve, and gets distracted by other, far more generic conflicts (with Principal Stewart, for instance) where it could raise the stakes between its charismatic leads. Still, it boasts enough one-liners and easy gags to keep a multiplex audience amused. Night School has a lot to learn about how to live up to its potential, but it squeaks out a passing grade in the end.
Production company: Hartbeat Productions, Will Packer Productions
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Anne Winters, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Taran Killam, Keith David, Loretta Devine
Director: Malcolm D. Lee