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Non-Review Review: Night School

Night School works better than it probably should, while never quite escaping its fundamental flaws.

Night School suffers from a lot of the structural issues that affect modern studio comedies. Most obviously, the film feels over-extended. It’s not just the run time, which clocks in at a muscular one-hundred-and-ten minutes, which is asking a lot for a broad comedy with a very simple premise. It is the individual jokes within the comedy, which are often stretched to breaking point and beyond. Perhaps the most egregious example is an early gag about finding hair in food at a restaurant, which goes on for what feels like five minutes built around the same standard social set-up.

To teach’s own.

There are very few major surprises in Night School. There are a few small and smart ideas buried in the mix, but they often feel crowded out by the broad jokes and the familiar clichés. There’s a recurring sense that Night School doesn’t always play to its strengths, at least below the headline. At the same time, the film understands that it lives or dies by the chemistry between its two leads, offering a conventional persona-driven conflict of manners that places Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish in opposition to one another before inevitably moving them into alignment.

Night School is diverting, if unsatisfying. It manages a passing grade, if little more.

Hart to Hart.

As with so many of these sorts of comedies, Night School lives or dies based on the chemistry between its two leads. Night School gets quite lucky in this regard. Kevin Hart’s school of high-energy rapid-fire comedy is an acquired taste, to be sure, a machine-gun approach to broad comedy that relies on heightening the gag (and, as characters in Night School point out, the pitch of his voice) to an absurd degree. When it works, it can be infectious and charming, powerful enough to sweep the audience along. However, the temptation is always to give it too much room, to let Hart’s style swallow everything around it.

In that respect, Night School casts its second lead remarkably well. Although Haddish has been working in Hollywood for over a decade, including a stint on reality television satire Real Husbands of Hollywood with Hart, she has only recently shot to prominence, propelled by her work with director Malcolm D. Lee on Girls’ Trip. Lee and and Haddish reteam on Night School, understanding that Haddish’ more grounded energy would make a nice counterbalance to Hart’s high-energy in-your-face school of comedy. Indeed, Night School gets considerable mileage over the pleasure of watching the leads bounce off one another.

You have to learn it.

There are a number of serious issues with Night School, but perhaps the most obvious is the film’s bloat and the extent to which its central characters seem crowded out of their own story. Night School often seems unsure whether it is a character-driven comedy around the particular trials of Teddy Walker, or if it is a slightly more expansive ensemble piece focusing on the eccentric cast of characters who populate the eponymous educational institution. The film is populated with a diverse array of supporting characters, from Teddy’s old school friend to his old school rival to his girlfriend, all competing for narrative space.

Teddy is very much the driving force of the narrative, in that the story is told from his perspective. Haddish’s character, Carrie, only appears about twenty minutes into the film. It is about another ten minutes before the bulk of Teddy’s new classmates are introduced. In a more focused comedy, this wouldn’t be an issue. These would be quirky side characters relegated to interesting cameos to flesh out a narrative with a much tighter focus on Teddy and Carrie. Think about all the superb supporting actors in comedy classics like Anchorman or Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Getting schooled.

Instead, Night School insists in a very studious and serious manner to give each of its supporting characters their own (admittedly minor) arcs. Mary Lynn Rajskub plays Theresa, a suburban mother who needs to learn important lessons about standing up for herself and also to sexually liberate herself. Rob Riggle is Mackenzie, the sweet-natured-but-dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks jock who has made a partnership with his son to get his qualification. Anne Winters is Mila, a young would-be criminal simply taking the class to avoid jail time, but who discovers that there’s so much more out there.

None of these arcs are really developed, and none go much deeper than a single log line or archetype. However, they serve to clutter up the film, pad out the runtime, and distract attention away from the central dynamic between Teddy and Carrie. This is the big issue with Night School, a clear lack of focus and unwillingness to prioritise what is important over the unnecessary material around it. There is a solid twenty-five minute chunk in the middle of the film dedicated to the class banding together to steal a mid-year exam, which more time than the actual exam receives at the climax of the story.

A familiar dance.

To be fair, none of these sequences are awful. Some even have a certain charm to them. However, there’s always a sense that Night School is unwilling to prioritise certain aspects of the film that it is making, resulting in a decidedly uneven experience. One mid-movie montage focuses on Teddy’s difficulties studying, suggesting a more tightly focused film, before expanding out to include quick shots of various other supporting characters also stuggling to study. The pacing and rhythms of the film are off, and this means that it never has time to develop these characters or ideas in any real depth.

That said, there are a few interesting choices made within Night School. These are often quite minor, including subtle subversions of expected comedic rhythms. It is repeatedly stressed, for example, that Teddy’s socialite girlfriend is “out of his league” and it’s emphasised that he cannot tell her about his own financial issues. Coupled with the introduction of the more grounded Carrie as a force in Teddy’s life, the film seems to gesture towards a familiar set of narrative rhythms, which it cleverly and cannily sidesteps in its final act.

Dial it back.

Indeed, the movie’s best joke is derived from a fundamental understanding of the core theme of an adult education comedy, the endearing idea that it is never too late and that there are always ways to redeem past mistakes. The film’s cleverest sequence unfolds at the climax of the story, when the film takes that central idea and runs with it, consciously toying with audience expectations. Unfortunately, the cleverness of this story beat is somewhat undercut by the emphasis placed on more familiar story elements around it. It ends up falling between two stools.

Indeed, these small moments of cleverness are frequently undercut by the film’s need to slow down and ensure that the audience gets a particular joke. Malcolm D. Lee is very fond of reaction shots as a way of underscoring particular punchlines, as a metric to tell the audience how to feel. To be clear, reaction shots can be a thing of beauty, as demonstrated by Blockers, but they feel incredibly clumsy and patronising as comedic exposition. Night School often undercuts the rhythms of its own jokes to ensure that the other characters signal to the audience that it is okay to laugh.

Strictly formula.

Similarly, a surprisingly earnest late-film revelation about Teddy’s academic dysfunction is undercut by the film’s awkward need to signpost that revelation from the earliest scenes. The film visually conveys the challenges that face Teddy as he tries to do his school work, effectively and efficiently explaining how Teddy processes information to the audience. Lee manages to get this information across so cleanly that one of the movie’s big reveals feels underwhelming. The big reveal doesn’t concern Teddy, but that the film thought that audience hadn’t already grasped this piece of information about Teddy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the sense that director Malcolm D. Lee is trying to balance the more African-American perspective of Girls’ Trip with a broader comedic appeal, with the film consciously drawing attention to various points of intersection and overlap. Taran Killam plays Stewart, the white principle of the school whose “black voice” is a frequent topic of discussion; his tendency to boast about “keepin’ it one hundy” or “lit”, while refusing to see any issue with that. Similarly, Teddy has to explain why he can’t dress in a silly costume to sell fried chicken at the side of the road in 2018.

A man of principle.

Indeed, these two examples even intersect towards the climax of the film, with a joke hinging on the idea that certain imagery and iconography is perfectly acceptable in certain contexts from certain perspectives, but not from others. Confronted with the image of Carrie chasing Teddy around the parking lot of a fried chicken restaurant, trying to whip him with a belt as he flails around in a gigantic chicken costume, Stewart feels decidedly uncomfortable. “This feels like a black thing,” he awkward muses. “I’m going to go inside and get us some food.”

This sort of tension within Night School creates an interesting back-and-forth, nudging the sensibility and perspective that made Girls’ Trip such a success a bit more towards the comedic mainstream. It’s interesting to see Night School embrace these interesting friction points so overtly, turning Stewart’s discomfort into a wry punchline and deriving comedy from the implied awkwardness of that point of collision. It certainly doesn’t overwhelm the film, and is never a focal point. Indeed, as much as Stewart embodies these anxieties, it is perhaps revealing that the film appreciably softens towards him in its third act.

Night School is messy and unfocused, both overcrowded and a little too formulaic for its own good, but the movie is not without a certain amount of charm generated by it two leads.

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