Night School is interesting as a movie-going experience, insomuch as it barely resembles one, yet I was hard-pressed to leave the theater offended by that fact. There are more cinematic viewing experiences available to be streamed on an iPhone via Netflix, but watching this particular program in a dark theater wasn’t as painful as it frankly should’ve been. It plays like a series of sequences in which eight different people perform stand-up at each other for nearly two hours, and because the quality of their material sometimes overwhelms the stiltedness of its presentation, what results is somehow simultaneously a total failure as a film but not entirely unsuccessful as an amorphous piece of entertainment.
No praise could be fainter, I’m sure. But truly, Night School’s cinematic failures are, to a degree, diluted by the unavoidable fact that it is intermittently funny, in a vacuum-sealed bemused chuckle sort of way. There is nothing organically funny about the base material itself, which works solely off of the grown-up-goes-back-to-school template and adds nothing but context-less character-based riffs. But those riffs occasionally hit the mark, humor that owes everything to the comedic talent among the cast. The movie itself is DOA; the actors spend the entire running time applying defibrillators that sometimes jolt it to life.
Its base framework, very clearly, is to follow the Apatow stencil of letting the cameras roll while the actors improvise for minutes on end. It’s not a smooth strategy editorially, since the film inevitably goes down occasional rabbit holes of back-and-forth joke-a-thons that distract from the narrative. But at least in the Apatow movies, there is usually a narrative to distract from. Night School takes an already-thin concept and stretches over 110 minutes, with the episodic joke digressions clamped on to prevent the entire enterprise from breaking. Oddly enough, sometimes they work, with great character actors and comedians – Mary Lynn Rajskub, Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, and Al Madrigal among them – running funny shtick indefatigably to keep the ship afloat while the headliners, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, attempt to carry out whatever trace directives guide the threadbare story.
On the subject of “story,” the Night School script is credited to six (6) writers – one of whom is Hart himself. He also produces, essentially assuming the Sandler-esque position of Executive Director; Malcom D. Lee nabbed the “Directed By” credit, but Hart likely called all the shots, so to speak. Also “Sandler-esque” – since with any luck I will never have to type that word again, so why not exhaust it here – is the fact that this sextuplet of screenwriters have delivered nothing but leaden exposition that gives way to a bridge of stale hijinks on the way to a saccharine conclusion. It makes sense that the funny stuff is generated by the in-the-moment wit of the supporting players – that includes Haddish, who gets above-the-title status and who nobly attempts to craft a real character amid the film’s disembodied jocularity, but who is frequently forgotten by a film that is clearly designed to showcase and elevate Hart, as if he was in need of additional showcasing and elevation.
Hart’s character is a guy who puts on an irrepressible front to disguise his insecurity over the fact that he’s a high school dropout. The characterization is an interesting parallel to Hart himself – not the high school dropout bit, but the apparent need to put on an all-caps SHOW rather than let his natural talent speak for itself. In Night School, Hart is constantly “on,” and he appears to be the only cast member whose spiel is relentlessly scripted, the intent of even a simple vocal intonation telegraphed for effect (so I guess that writing committee was worth something). He’s a funny guy who has built himself into a brand he’s now afraid to stray from. Had he focused his ebullient energy to play more naturally off his talented co-stars, Night School might feel less like filmed comedy, and more like a comedy film.