Film Review: Night School

Let’s grade this comedy about some GED students, starring Kevin Hart and 'Girls Trip' breakout Tiffany Haddish, a B- with remedial work recommended for a degree of higher box-office sustainability.
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Malcolm D. Lee’s Night School is a likeable, “easy-listening,” fun comedy buttressed by a highly workable premise: A cross-section of, let’s call them challenged, young and older high-school dropouts gathered in a classroom for studies leading to their qualifying GED diploma, which, in turn, will set them on better life paths.

Yes, the Universal release from the director of Girls Trip has the requisite gross-out moments (fart jokes, ear-picking, person-on-person vomiting, etc.) and some chuckles, but also a PG-13 rating that might disappoint the targeted core audience.

Foremost among this bunch of wannabe misfits is Teddy (star Kevin Hart), who as a high-schooler, as seen in flashback, was mocked by both his own (otherwise loving) family and classmates, most significantly and punishingly by goody-goody creep Stewart (“Saturday Night Live” alum Taran Killam). Blessed with a winning personality and sales skills, Teddy dropped out, but years later he emerges as a top BBQ salesman to the point that his soon-to-retire boss offers him ownership of the entire high-end grill business.

Teddy even has a lovely and successful design-executive girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). But having overspent on things like a Porsche and duplex, he hides his financial situation from her. In one of the film’s more, well, fitting moments and taking inspiration perhaps from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he even slips some of his own pubic hair onto a dessert at a posh restaurant so he’ll be excused of the bill. Discerning waiter Luis (Al Madrigal) exposes the scam but loses his job when Teddy protests.

To celebrate his good luck with the grill business, Teddy brings Lisa to the store’s showroom after hours. But uncorking some champagne unleashes what becomes a propane gas explosion that destroys the store. Without his high-school degree, Teddy now is also without a future. Enter Marvin (Ben Schwartz), a good pal in finance who promises Teddy a gig as a financial analyst if he gets his GED.

Biting the bullet, Teddy returns to the high school he hated to enlist in a GED class, only to learn that his high-school tormenter Stewart is now its principal. Teddy forges forth, but, oops, the GED teacher is Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), a bad-ass, no-nonsense lady with whom he had a recent angry encounter just short of road rage.

But he joins her rollicking class of colorful misfits, among these another oops—former waiter Luis. Others in this benign blackboard jungle include Mac (Rob Riggle), a dim jock tired of being a mover; Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a wife and mother in serious need of liberation who later blossoms in unexpected ways; Jaylen (Romany Malco), a hilarious kook bitter about losing his job to a robot; Mila (Anne Winters), a lost soul eyeing college; and Bobby (Joseph Cartagena), who participates via Skype from the prison where he’s an inmate.

Classroom antics and amusing interactions and banter keep things lively, though considerably un-academic. Teddy’s learning problems in class come to life via some clever visual effects and his daytime job at a Christian fast-food chicken joint adds some levity. His goal to hide his plight from Lisa generates some tension, as does a silly, often amusing caper involving the students’ plot to pinch their dreaded midterm exam from Principal Stewart’s office computer.

A lot of writers stirred this pot, but it remains a tad undercooked, even as some very nice messages (the importance of perseverance, tolerance, education) have been tossed in. Night School pushes no buttons nor breaks new boundaries, but it pleases and entertains enough to get a diploma for good effort.