Hart. Haddish. The surname-only star billing at the top of NIGHT SCHOOL’s marketing materials also serves as a tagline of sorts, positioning the pairing of combustible comics Kevin and Tiffany as something akin to a championship bout–a perception reinforced by the trailers prominently featuring the two literally grappling in an MMA octagon. While those drawn in by that promise will indeed find it fulfilled, the sight and resulting sparks of these two stars literally and figuratively butting heads are only a piece of what ultimately makes Malcolm D. Lee’s agreeable trifle of a film a fun watch.
Even being a light entertainer, the film does not quickly find its footing and groove. The script (credited to Hart and frequent collaborators Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, and Matt Kellard, in addition to hit comedy veterans Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg) takes its time to get Hart’s high school dropout Teddy Walker from riding high with a recent wedding engagement and a forthcoming job promotion to occupying a humbled seat in the GED night school classes taught by Haddish’s no-nonsense Carrie. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the antics along the way justified their time in laughs, but the gags in the early-going too often come off as try-hard, forced, and in one notable case literally overblown, as in the large building explosion that sends Teddy flying into the windshield of a car and his life into disarray. Fortunately, the build-up of background circumstances–and, for that matter, the rather muted chuckles that come with them–are rendered moot once the two stars meet on screen and the film settles into its central scenario and the emphasis is less on the broader gags and more on the organic comedy that arises when its characters collide. While the combative chemistry between Hart and Haddish proves to be a worthy hook in its proper context, the classroom is also where the writers and Lee deploy their secret comedic weapon: the crack ensemble surrounding and supporting the central pair. From Teddy’s classmates played by Romany Malco, Rob Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Al Madrigal, Anne Winters, and Fat Joe to Taran Killam as Teddy’s old high school nemesis-now-principal, Lee gives each the necessary moments and space to show their stuff and make an impression with their oddball characters, with Malco’s conspiracy-minded Jaylen a particular scene stealer.
But there’s no stealing the film from the draw of the dynamic duo, from whom Lee knows to generally step back and let naturally work their mojo and magic. Hart, who also wears a producer’s hat in addition to being on the pen and in front of the camera, doesn’t stray too far from his tried and true wheelhouse here; as in his stand-up, much is mined from Teddy’s insecure fear of inadequacy, and, yes, his short stature is an issue. Comfort zones are that for a reason, though, and if the part isn’t exactly a challenge, the ease of Hart’s timing and physicality only sell the comedy more effectively. Even better is Haddish, proving not only that she is indeed the real deal on the big screen but also no one-trick pony. While Carrie can get brash and outrageous, especially when it comes to her sometimes unorthodox teaching techniques, Haddish grounds her with genuine poise, professionalism, and intelligence–which makes the contrast with Teddy that much more defined and their physical and verbal sparring all the more entertaining. NIGHT SCHOOL may be a prototypically formulaic, star-driven Hollywood comedy programmer, but when the modest goals are easily met with an identifiable and infectious personality, any nitpicks remain beside the point.
By Michael Dequina