There have been moments in my cinematic education where, much to the chagrin of my personal partisanship, I find myself questioning the integrity of the film critic community at large. This is another such moment. That personal partisanship would be my usual tendency to regard critics as unbiased, objective observers of an art form they’ve studied ad nauseam. Considering that here I am attempting my own approach to the craft of critique, it’s understandable I would harbor this sentiment, but through this attempt of mine, as well as the simple sage of time, I’m beginning to believe that sentiment is utter bullshit, for lack of a better term. From the outside looking in, it appears critics can be just as petty and biased as the rest of us, particularly when it comes to seriously subjective genres they find impossible to take seriously, like Horror, Comedy, or even Science-Fiction. Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie” and the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart vehicle “Get Hard” are the latest victims of this elitist prejudice, sort of. They are flawed, they could have been better, they’re only intermittently enjoyable, but they’re not the crap of the crop, not by a long shot.
With “Chappie,” I would guesstimate the major source of their contention are the prominent leading roles for South African rap rave duo Die Antwoord, an odd choice to be sure, but not one that severely diminishes or deprives a film that’s pretty odd from the outset anyway. In fact, the urban nerve these two exude is something difficult to replicate with any old actor. The accented verbal fisticuffs on display from Ninja and Yolandi Visser add a certain level of gritty authenticity, and their characters’ parental pull over the impressionable young robot compete with that of his humble creator’s, played by the endearing if uncontrolled Dev Patel. These opposing influences serve as a metaphor for humanity’s conflicting ideals: will Chappie choose a criminal path or the righteous path? Blomkamp alternates between success and failure when tackling themes such as the nature of consciousness or the notion of soul, but his direction is visually sound and aurally spectacular when blowing things up, and politically astute when addressing the nuances of South Africa’s societal landscape. Sorry, stuck-ups, but gangsta’ life is a part of that, so all those upturned noses at the Vissers’ antics just won’t do. Sharlto Copely gives good as the voice of Chappie, able to transition between a six year-old’s child-like innocence and a teenager’s rebellious twang with relative ease. Hugh Jackman is saddled with a villain of religious zealotry and absurdly repugnant motivations, underwritten to the extreme and played to the extreme by an actor who needs a little reigning in now and again. His bombs-away behavior (the character’s also a war-hawk, go figure) makes way for a bombastic finale that turns a little robot drama into a big robot romp rather quickly, easily the worst part of a typically frenetic but not hectic film. Nevertheless, this over-the-top titillation leads to the pinnacle of Blomkamp’s foray into philosophical foliage, exacting revenge for those wronged and granting immortality to those lost. It’s a proper denouement for a piece of cinema that skirts the line between campy and complex.
The critical reception for “Get Hard” is slightly more understandable, though still detestable in its politically correct denouncement of what’s actually a decent comedy if we’re talking laugh quotient. I laughed more than I didn’t, and there’s something to be said for that. Sure, prison rape isn’t exactly a laughing matter and even it it were, it’s old hat, but that doesn’t make the movie homophobic or insensitive. Well, maybe insensitive, but insensitivity is nearly a requirement for ridiculous comedy. That’s just the way of the world, and by my count Ferrell and Hart bring their genuine best to roles perfectly suited to their particular talents. Predictably, the plot tries to incorporate themes of corporate malfeasance and allusions to that abyss between the 1% and everyone else, go-to lip service for seemingly every story under the southern California sun. I’m sympathetic to these themes, but not in the form of facile tokenism. The plot itself is also fairly formulaic, which is no surprise, but never a welcome addition to comedies which live or die by the unexpected word or wring. What elevates “Get Hard” above those silly allusions and expected trajectories are Ferrell’s rich-white-man mannerisms in the middle of dire circumstances, and Hart’s family man affability in the middle of a thuggish charade. Writer and director take their individual peculiarities, amp them up to 11, and let the duo parry like any two great comedians often do when put in a room together. In this case, sometimes they produce magic, sometimes they produce something middling. But they’re never not entertaining. Craig T. Nelson of “Coach” fame shows up as the obligatory Gordon Gecko wannabe, and Alison Brie is more or less wasted as Ferrell’s fiance who, of course, turns out to be a bitch-on-heels, but the chemistry between leads is undeniable and even unbelievably endearing, against all odds, by the end of the movie. Their presence breathes life into what’s otherwise a textbook example of comedic mediocrity.