Film Review: Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain

Madison Square Garden is the sold-out setting for 'Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain,' where Hart turns his personal pain into comedy and back again: a celebratory performance about his life and work, one and the same.

A spoofy cinéma vérité mockumentary begins Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, with a pre-performance party hosted by the 32-year-old comic where he pretends to feel attacked by his own guests and staff, and a self-satire when he mispronounces amicable and a tag line corrects him. The documentary’s conclusion consists of a series of visually clever improv skits with Hart and friends on the street. But these bookenders are merely the framework for the straightforward presentation of Hart’s 2012 Madison Square Garden show, which is, of course, the title of the film.

Before the big show starts, we see snippets of his fan base worldwide, as an imaginary plane sets down in cities from Vancouver to Stockholm, with real-life footage of mostly young fans enthusing “We love you Kevin,” and “I saw you on You Tube!” The one-man comedy show is Borscht Belt for our age. We’re electronically preloaded for the routines and jokes, but we go along hoping for a new twist or delivery.

In the main performance of this relatively short movie, Hart bends the familiar Horace Walpole adage, "Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” The comic, although able to maintain the distance needed to take an acerbic view of his own life, clearly feels powerful emotions and shows it. When the show ends, he thanks the audience for sticking with him though his rise to comic stardom, and even gets teary-eyed about what it means to him to be performing a one-person show at Madison Square Garden. There are emotional references to his kids, and it’s a matter of taste if you think some of this jarringly breaks character, or his comic persona.

A preview audience was empathetic to the performance, and seemed to see the film as a culminating, celebratory stage in a series following Hart’s 2011 stand-up comedy film Laugh at My Pain, and his work on “Saturday Night Live” and Comedy Central’s “I’m a Grown Little Man.” (Hart is 5’2”, and he mines his short stature for jokes throughout the film.) He is an incredibly agile and physically gifted comic: The bit where he acts out how women behave during an argument really nails it—the low twist, the bending to the side, when making accusations. A riff on a horseback ride he took with his son and support staff is clever, as he demonstrates the gyrations of a short novice rider like himself whose feet don't reach the stirrups. Another stand-out is watching him slither into an imaginary “Applebee's” booth.

Similar to other talented stand-ups who write their own material (yes, of course, Jerry Seinfeld), Hart looks to everyday realities to provide the core of his material, including his divorce. He proudly announces that, yeah, while he’s happy to be single, and while he’s sure he’s happier than his ex, he’s not competitive with her at all. As Hart would say, “What?”

In Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, as in many “puttin’ on the show” films, we get the backstage moment. Hart allows us to see and feel his pre-performance jitters. But throughout the show itself, the director cuts to selected audience members at the Garden applauding and adoring. It seems like a promotional feature, though Hart is clearly beyond the need for this. And there is little creative editing of the sort seen in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, with the distanced shot of David Byrne, in his huge white jacket, in a shaft of light.

In the end, you like Hart: You feel his post-divorce emotional vulnerability and appreciate his sideways take on things. Yet the film does seem like self-congratulatory psychotherapy, despite the laughs. Prepare for raunchy language, of course, and a lot of it.