Kevin Hart: What Now?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday October 12, 2016

'Kevin Hart: What Now?'
'Kevin Hart: What Now?'  

When Kevin Hart sold out Lincoln Financial Field (a massive football arena) in his home town of Philadelphia for his show "What Now?" he evidently entered the record books. It's for this reason that the comedy concert movie is being billed as having "made history," rather than the body count that piles up during the film's fictional, James Bond-esque bookend sequences.

The spy comedy mini-movie that frames the stand-up act features a co-starring role for Halle Berry and appearances by various other actors, including Don Cheadle, but it has nothing to do with the act's themes, which revolve around Hart's family in the show's first half before departing for coarser, and funnier territory at the back end. The stories begin without at his residence in the woods, with night terrors involving gangster raccoons and domestic exasperations like having to deal with children who go to private school and so lack their father's "edge," before careening into the aftermath of watching a scary movie, a night of ping-pong playing gone amuck, a filthy (and yet sympathetic) flirtation with sex toys, an attack of loose bowels at an airport, and a show-capping anecdote about Hart's first foray into a Starbuck's. Hart knows the value of building to a comic crescendo, and he sequences his laughs accordingly.

Hart is gifted at establishing a rapport with the audience, which is probably why he can so easily riff on the sorts of un-PC material he pulls off so well. Part of his shtick is the stripe of self-effacement he uses, mocking himself for supposedly being small of both stature and temperament; he paints himself as petty, cowardly, and something of a cad both with children and women.

But these confessionals are a way of assuring his audience that Hart is really one of them -- confused, overwhelmed, and perpetually out of his league, his flashy, diamond-encrusted necklace notwithstanding. At one point, miming sitting on the toilet, and with his image superimposed on a slightly unsavory, and definitely enlarged, photo of a public commode, Hart declares, "This is life size!" (This sequence also draws what might be the movie's biggest laugh, when the camera, with exquisite timing, zeroes in on the disapproving reaction of an audience member.)

His patter is sprinkled liberally with casual profanity (to the point that you start thinking his profanity is sprinkled with bits of exposition), and the sorts of situations he mines for comedy are exactly the things anyone can understand: A woman's contemptuous skepticism, or a startlement at the sight of a glow-in-the-dark Batman portrait.

Hart has no trouble entertaining the entire arena -- or the cineplex ticket holders. But there's one respect in which his act breaks its own intimacy with the audience, and that's the way the show uses sound effects and imagery. When Hart's talking about his fiancee's hypothetical situations -- what would he do, for instance, if she fell overboard while they were boating and was attacked by a shark? -- fitting graphics of a sea and a circling shark fin appear on the screen behind him. At other times lighting flashes from cloudy skies to the sound of thunder, and cartoon eyes of carnivorous nighttime predators glow in the dark.

We'd get the point if left to imagine these things on our own, but what's really distracting is the sense that these elements have been worked into the act through precise planning and rehearsal, which, of course, they have. The problem is that stand-up comedy works best when it feels and sounds off the cuff and spontaneous, and the overt implication of how each beat and inflection must have been pre-determined spoils that illusion.

There's one other gripe to be had, which is that the show doesn't end with the words "My name is Kevin Hart!" and the sight of the comedian leaving the stage via descending platform. Instead, a second round of James Bond-ish spy comedy is tacked on, and it's not as funny as the material Hart used at the end of his stage show. He goes from zero to twenty to forty to one hundred and sixty over the course of about 80 minutes, only then to drop to school zone speeds, and it's a let-down. On the other hand, the ending does feed in well to the name of the show. You watch it and think: What now?

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.