It’s become a tradition for longer stand-up specials and concert films to open with a segment that brings the famous comedian from real life onto the stage. Kevin Hart has already appeared in two successful concert films, Laugh At My Pain and Let Me Explain, and so he answers the subtitle of his newest project, What Now?, with an opening segment designed to goose the film into a major event. A pretty decent parody of James Bond credits sequences gives way to a full 15 minutes of introductory shenanigans with Hart blustering his way around an over-lit casino.
This sequence is as scattershot and slapdash as any feature-length spy spoof starring Hart would have been; it’s even assembled by his Ride Along series director Tim Story. Doing away with any kind of stylistic approximation of Bond, the mini-movie uses freeze frames to call attention to its celebrity cameos: game actual Bond girl Halle Berry, pointless Ed Helms, and amusingly irate, profane Don Cheadle. All of this star power is intended to remind the audience that impending access to Hart’s performance at a Philadelphia stadium is a really big deal.
Yet despite the Hollywood trappings, and some ill-advised giant-screen visuals intended to augment some of his routines, Hart’s actual stand-up doesn’t depend on bombast or even much ego. A little bit of his material nods at his recent successes, in that he talks about moving his family out to the suburbs, and complains about private school softening his two children. But even this material, much of which centers on his fear of wild animals when taking out the garbage, doesn’t stray too far from relatability. That’s not the only or most vital characteristic of a good stand-up comic, but in Hart’s case, it goes a long way.
Though two other writers are credited alongside Hart, brilliant jokes have never really been his strong suit. Here he comes across the occasional inspired turn of phrase (“That’s not my journey,” he tells his young son when he asks for help taking out the trash), but, as ever, he sells okay material with his energy and his delivery. We’re talking not just about his signature gesticulations and shouting. His set also has a smooth, confident flow, making seamless transitions and satisfying callbacks. The crispness of this presentation accommodates his weirder bits, like a surprisingly lengthy riff on the disadvantages of a hypothetical woman with only one shoulder, or a hypothetical man with no kneecaps.
In general, Hart seems amusingly hung up on the prospect of gruesome animal attacks; that’s what terrifies him in his suburban home, that’s how he pictures the loss of shoulders and kneecaps occurring in the first place, and that’s what’s on his mind when he describes his fiancée quizzing him about what he’d do if a shark attacked them. In imagining these scenarios, a lot of his material takes on the unifying theme of selfish fear: Again and again, he describes situations wherein he would prize his own safety over that of his loved ones. This could sound downright nasty (and sometimes it does), but Hart so relentlessly details his own self-preservation that it becomes, almost paradoxically, a vanity-free confession. (It’s also pretty funny to hear him describe him hightailing it out of his own home after watching The Conjuring at the behest of his father’s girlfriend.)
These are not nuances that often come through in Hart’s studio comedies. Even in the simulation of one that opens What Now?, his banter with Berry amounts to the same old motormouthed, repetitive non-jokes. When he’s alone onstage, he diverges from that persona and becomes more clearly expressive of comic ideas. What Now? eventually runs out of steam in its last 10 or 15 minutes; the callbacks start to seem more forced, and he closes on a weak routine about complicated Starbucks orders that seems at least a decade too late. Despite the roar of the stadium crowd, this movie is not quite the comic event it relentlessly advertises in its opening and closing moments. But it is a reminder of the talent behind the hubris.