October 14, 2016
You know that friend who’s super good at entertaining people at parties, who seems to come up with every inside joke? That’s Kevin Hart, only instead of telling stories at parties, he’s selling out stadiums and inspiring animated gifs.
More than 53,000 people attended Hart’s hometown show at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in August 2015, making him the only comedian to ever sell out a stadium at full capacity. That’s the show movie audiences get to see in Hart’s latest hour-long comedy special Kevin Hart: What Now?
From the moment he enters the stage, Hart’s energy is contagious. The guy’s a firecracker anyway, one of those entertainers who seems larger than life despite his famously small stature. Hart is in his element on the Linc stage: he’s surrounded by people who already love him and– even better– people who know they’re being filmed for a special. They came ready to be entertained by the man on stage but also to entertain us, the people who will only watch the show on the other side of an edit bay.
The punchline to an early joke is “Being careful is what I’m most careful at!” and it’s true. Hart has talked before about how his starring role in Soul Plane back in 2004 was supposed to be his big break. When the movie flopped, Hart could easily have tucked his tail between his legs and assumed he just wasn’t destined to make it in show business. Instead, he spent a decade figuring out exactly what his brand is and how to make the most of it. Hart has now built nothing short of an empire and is extremely careful to deliver what audiences want from him. He does everything with excellence, whether it’s his parody-based quasi-reality show Real Husbands of Hollywood or putting on the most successful comedy tour of all time.
The material overall most certainly meets audience expectations. Hart is strongest when he’s a storyteller. Stories about his kids losing their “edge” while attending a mostly white private school and growing up in the luxury their dad’s success affords them are some of his best work. The observations hit the American zeitgeist right in the center, intersecting concerns about racial identity, parenting, privilege, and the line between rich and poor. Are the stories all true? Let’s assume they’re…embellished. Hart’s most useful strength as an entertainer is his ability to notice when something is humorous and mine it for maximum comedic value. Once he has you laughing through tears at how he got so scared at a noise in his house that he left his family to deal with an unknown danger without him, you’re unlikely to care if the facts have been exaggerated.
I would have loved to see Hart dig even deeper into what I’ll call #richpeopleproblems. When he veers outside the experiences that are personal the material is weaker. Jokes that start with “women love to…” and poke fun at how complicated it is to place a Starbucks order feel particularly dated.
Then there’s the extended bit about how Hart could never be with a person who was missing one or more limbs that feels as off the mark as the stuff about his kids feels on. Rather than asking the audience to laugh at themselves or him, the bit invites the audience to laugh at the disabled people who end up the butt of the joke. That’s not comedy, that’s just cruel. It’s an unfortunate misstep that makes Hart seem more out of touch than I think he’d like you to believe.
What Now? exists on a plane somewhere between comedy special and movie. Hart’s time on stage is bookended by scenes depicting him as a fictionalized version of himself, a man on a James Bond-like mission, with a stylized opening credit sequence and a daring helicopter escape thrown in for good measure. Former Bond-girl Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Ed Helms and others cameo, and the scene at the beginning features one of the cleverest subtitle jokes I’ve ever seen.
The cinematic elements spill over to the set Hart performs on stage. Giant video screens display photos and animation to accompany various jokes, and dramatic lighting cues and sound effects are so synchronized you forget you’re watching a live show.
Hart set impressive records with the What Now? tour. Even more impressive is that he succeeds in bringing stand-up comedy fully into the cinematic arena. Whatever comes next for Kevin Hart, you can bet he’ll continue to push the boundaries of entertainment with a carefully calculated and excellently executed plan.
YOU SHOULD ALSO: Watch the comedy special that put Kevin Hart on the map, I’m A Grown Little Man, available on most streaming platforms.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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