Kevin Hart, a diminutive comedian (5'2"), carries a very big audience on his shoulders (60,000 fans during two sold out Madison Square Garden performances). Tiny in stature, with a mouth the size of the Grand Canyon, he's ready to conquer the world. And he does, somewhat, in 75 minutes of intermittent hilarity that will appeal to his generation.
Hart has paid his dues. From a shoe salesman in Philly, to appearances at the Boston Comedy Club and Caroline's, to hosting the 2012 MTV VMA's, to a starring role in the film adaptation of the best-selling Steve Harvey self-help book Think Like A Man, Hart has built a solid foundation. In 2011, his first live performance film Laugh At My Pain, set the stage for this latest endeavor, which is less a breakthrough film, more a confirmation of his stature in today's comedy world.
The film, which starts awkwardly at a mix-and-mingle party, segues to his road show with concert dates in Canada, Scandinavia and England. When his film crew asks fans around the globe how they know Kevin, it's not necessarily from MTV or appearances in popular films like Scary Movie 3. It's from YouTube and quite often the Snoop Dog-starring airplane disaster parody and cult classic Soul Plane. The gleam in their eyes means they've taken the imp to heart. Why?
It's easy to like Hart. He is self-effacing, humble and eager to make jokes about his height, love life and friendships. When he talks about relationships, people connect with him. He's animated, kinetic, loud and forceful. And when those antics don't work, he cues the prop guys to start the pyrotechnics, and flames shoot up from the stage. It's a fail-proof gimmick that makes you smile at his audacity.
As the shoddy intro indicates, people have been saying things about Hart that are simply untrue. Rumors are the price of fame. Says one lovely black woman with hair extensions flailing, head cocked and her finger in Hart's face, "Is it true you're not f------- with dark bitches no more?" This and other falsehoods have forced Hart's hand. He takes to the stage. "Let Me Explain." And he does.
The center platform at Madison Square Garden is no joke. People in front. People on the sides. People in the rafters, and even behind the stage. 30,000 fans looking for a laugh and you have to deliver. Hart does, starting slowly and building. Anecdotes about cheating on his wife hit a common chord. How he gets his best friend to lie for him tickles them: "Man I'm hungry as shit," is code for I'm lying and you as my best friend are suppose to join the conversation and bail me out in front of my lady. Yet somehow Kevin's friends never get their signals right. Routines about security guards who humiliate him and riding double on a horse with a horny instructor draw guffaws.
As Hart continues, you judge him against his predecessors. Richard Pryor's onstage-characters and cathartic moments (he swore off using the "N" word after visiting Africa) masked his inner demons and were historic. Hart is not a troubled man. In Eddie Murphy Raw, the Saturday Night Live alumnus displayed a graphic anger, misogyny and a homophobia that was ghastly. Hart isn't mean. Men and women are the equal butt of his humor. He's comfortable enough with his manhood to make jokes about not wanting to go to prison because he has a cute little ass. In Chris Rock's cable TV comedy concerts he dissected social, political, racial and gender issues with an astute intelligence few comedians possess. Hart sticks to lighter subjects.
Quite often it is not what Hart says, but how he says it. When he manipulates his body, contorts his head, twist his neck, bugs his eyes out and storms around the stage you laugh, even if you haven't heard a word he's said. Almost like the late Bernie Mac. You can't remember what they hell he was talking about, but his face and put-upon demeanor was hilarious.
Filmmaker Leslie Small directed comedy shows like The All Star Comedy Jam, Steve Harvey: Still Trippin' and Hart's previous Laugh At My Pain. The director's instincts are decent, not much more. There are a lot of cutaways to laughing audience members that feel robotic. The montage in the beginning of the movie looks cheap and unflattering. The concert segment visuals are of a higher quality. Spencer Averick edits the film down to less than what it should be. At only 75 minutes long, you question whether cable TV or VOD might be a more fitting medium for the material. As a theatrical release, folks will question whether the short length, $10 tickets and high prices for popcorn make this film worth the effort and the money.
Hart has a long way to go before he will be mentioned in the same breath as Pryor, Murphy or Rock. Filling 30,000 seats at Madison Square Garden is step in the right direction for a young man who's done a superb job building a fan base that's addicted to his brand of urban culture, lightweight humor. Respect will come when what he says is as impressive has how he says it.
Visit film critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.