Film Review – Night School
Night School (2018) is the kind of comedy that just keeps getting in its own way. The set up alone can make for some funny situations. A guy – trying to make a better life for himself and his fiancé – decides to go to night school so that he can earn his GED and get a better paying job. That right there should be enough to garner some laughs as well as some much needed emotion, given that the plot is about a character trying to achieve a personal goal. But like most run of the mill comedies, it instead settles for cheap laughs and gratuitous site gags, as though it were simply a string to hang half realized sketches on to.
Malcolm D. Lee takes the director’s chair, following up on his success with Girls Trip (2017). What made that film work so well was that each of the characters were fully realized, unique individuals. While it certainly had its fair share of raunchiness and debauchery, it worked because of the character development and chemistry amongst the cast. Night School does not operate in the same vein because it lacks the same kind of thoughtfulness and insight. Rather, this is simply a vehicle for Kevin Hart (who co-produces and co-writes) to chew scenery basically playing a version of himself.
Teddy (Hart) is a high school drop out who grew up to become a salesman at a local BBQ grill store. After an unfortunate accident (involving a gas leak explosion) leaves Teddy without a means to support his fiancé Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), he takes it upon himself to go to night school and get his GED. However, things aren’t as easy as he assumed. His classes are run by Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), a teacher who takes no gruff from anybody and refuses to let any of her students cut corners. When Teddy tries to bribe her to get a good grade, Carrie calls him out immediately. Things don’t get easier when Teddy has to make ends meet while still going to school, and thus has take a job at an Evangelical fried chicken fast food chain, to the ridicule of passing customers.
If we strip the narrative down to the bare essentials, there’s some promise to be found. Many people don’t complete their education for various reasons. For those who decide to go back, they have to wrestle with a jumble of emotions: the anxiety of learning things that most people learn in their teens, having to convince themselves that what they’re doing will work out for them in the long run, etc. This all makes for an opportunity for an interesting character study. The disappointment comes from the plot not focusing enough on these themes. We barely get to see any of the work that Teddy or his classmates do, nor do we see them make any progress from the start of the class to their final exams.
Instead, the focus shifts to a number of meaningless scenes that have very little connection between one another. Teddy’s attempts to keep night school a secret from his fiancé is barely an afterthought through much of the runtime, but then becomes the central point of tension in the second and third acts. We’re subjected to some very lowbrow humor involving pubic hair and vomit. These jokes may have worked if there was more creative effort put into the execution, but no, the comedy swings for the lowest common denominator to get a reaction. Scenes are injected almost as a means to fill time – such as an after hours attempt by the class to steal a midterm exam – because they end up becoming irrelevant to the outcome of the plot.
Kevin Hart takes so much of the screen with his over the top delivery that it pulls away from characters that we could have learned more about. The class is made up of quirky people from all facets of life. Luis (Al Madrigal) is an immigrant who wants to become a dental hygienist to help support his dream of being a popular musician. Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is a stay at home mom who seems feeble on the outside but wishes to step out of her shell. Mackenzie (Rob Riggle) is a middle-aged man who never quite grew out of his high school football days. Jaylen (Romany Malco) gets a lot of laughs with his paranoid, extremely “woke” perspective. Mila (Anne Winters) is an actual teen that goes to night school so that she can graduate on time, and Fat Joe shows up as a convicted felon who attends class through a computer monitor. All of these characters have backstories that are worth diving into, but they all take a backseat to Teddy, the least interesting character of all.
I’ll admit there were times in Night School were I chuckled out loud, but these moments came few and far between, and not nearly enough for me to ever want to see this again. Everyone seems to be game in their respective roles, but the entire piece does not equal the sum of its parts. Now there’s an equation for you to work out.