It won’t have the staying power or cultural impact of stand-up specials from Pryor, Carlin, or Murphy, but Kevin Hart: What Now? is an entertaining and sporadically very funny diversion provided by a charismatic comedian. Hart’s conviction and genial delivery sells the observational material and even if there’s a dearth of readily quotable bits, there’s just enough controlled commotion to appreciate watching a guy command the stage at the height of his popularity.
The size of that stage is quite impressive, with Hart selling out Lincoln Financial Field in his hometown of Philadelphia and mugging for a record-breaking crowd of 50,000-plus. There needed to be some sort of hook to up the ante from his successful 2013 concert film Let Me Explain, and the enormity of the venue is a good start.
Directed the Leslie Small, the stage performance includes sweeping shots of the swarm of fans as well as tight reactions that provide a good mix between the scale of the production and Hart’s conversational, intimate approach. Visual aids that appear on giant moving screens behind the comedian and display joke scenarios – the unlit driveway outside of his mansion or a boat with a shark circling off the stern, probably worked better in the stadium than they do in the theater, where they come off as superfluous and a tad hokey. He’s a good enough storyteller that we don’t need them.
The more cinematically polished opening sketch, a James Bond parody directed by Tim Story, is the best narrative film that Hart’s been in yet. It could be that it’s a small dose of him playing a heightened version of himself, which often grows tiresome in a feature, or that the presence of Halle Berry and Don Cheadle elevate the shenanigans, but there’s an impression that a Spy-esque film starring Hart could work well.
But the real measure of What Now?’s success rides on the stand-up. The meat of the material covers the performer’s family and successful life, weaving in tales of fatherhood and sticky relationship situations. From his spoiled private school kids who are apoplectic when the Wi-Fi is down to an inquisitive fiancée and jabs at his own fragile masculinity, the star never feels like a poseur and is true to his lifestyle yet remains relatable. He’s a successful friend you’d still love to hang with because he’s genuine and has great stories.
Less successful are extended digressions into more contrived situations, including a longwinded contemplation of what disfiguring injuries would make you leave your significant other. A tired gag about a famous person needing to use an airport bathroom is only saved by the stunned reaction shot of an audience member. And in 2016 anecdotes about the ridiculousness of Starbucks culture are almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks storefronts.
Any lulls, however, are mostly saved by Hart’s charm and his ability to seamlessly transition from the broad to the personal. Even the Starbucks stuff taps into his own quirks as an anxious ball of energy who quells phobias with joke-making.
You could argue that those jokes lack an edge – there’s nothing partisan, no over-the-top anger, and nothing designed to shock, but Hart pushing it there could come across as disingenuous and what makes What Now? work is an appealing artist operating within his wheelhouse.