FILM REVIEW – NIGHT SCHOOL. With Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Al Madrigal. Written by Kevin Hart & Harry Ratchford & Joey Wells & Matthew Kellard and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Rated PG – 13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence. 111 minutes.
The beginning of NIGHT SCHOOL does not bode well for the film. Kevin Hart plays Teddy Walker, a high school dropout, who has forged a successful career as a salesman, although he is living beyond his means in order to impress his girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke). The lowbrow humor includes a scene where he puts pubic hair on a dessert in order to avoid paying a restaurant bill he can’t afford, and a proposal scene where you can see the payoff from the moment it starts. It’s not very promising.
However, when the main story finally gets underway, something happens. Teddy has the prospect of a new job but one that requires that he get his G.E.D. He thinks he can hustle his way through the process but discovers his old high school nemesis (Taran Killam) is now the principal, and Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), who teaches night school, expects him to do the work.
It’s when we get to the class that the film starts to take off. It still has its lapses into bodily function jokes, but as we meet the other students in the class they turn out to be a group of lovable misfits. Al Madrigal is the would-be singer/songwriter who lost his job over Teddy’s restaurant stunt. Rob Riggle is a big lug who wants to move into management at his moving company. Mary Lynn Rajskub dropped out when she became pregnant and complains about her less-than-ideal life before shifting gears and declaring she is “blessed.” Also in the class are Romany Malco as someone obsessive over various conspiracies, Anne Winters as a young woman who will go to jail if she doesn’t straighten her life out, and rapper Fat Joe whose character reveal shouldn’t be spoiled in a review.
What makes this different from what passes for comedies these days is that it’s not about humiliating its characters. Even the principal, the film’s heavy, gets a moment of redemption. In short – no pun intended – this is a movie with heart. Teddy and the other students are all in need of a second chance, try to find a shortcut, but ultimately learn that it comes through commitment and hard work. That’s not to say the film is without genuine laughs. Rajskub’s attempt to seduce the principal to distract him from a break-in to steal an exam is a long way from her buttoned-down character on “24.” And the fill-in job Teddy takes at a fast food joint calling itself “Christian Chicken” is funny without ever mocking characters simply for having sincere religious beliefs.
At the center of all this are Hart and Haddish, who get to cut loose and yet also get to show the humanity of their characters in ways that, say, Adam Sandler or Melissa McCarthy rarely have. By treating the characters as people rather than punching bags, “Night School” may be low comedy, but it doesn’t leave you wanting to take a shower afterward.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.