RATING |

If you've seen the previews for Night School, you know there's a scene with Tiffany Haddish in a mixed martial arts cage with Kevin Hart, delivering blows to his chin.

You wonder what demented athletic commission would sanction such a one-sided fight.

In the arena of comedy, though, mismatches can be fun, and there are some laughs to be had in watching Haddish and Hart do what they do best – Haddish, the formidable woman who can dish it out, and Hart, the little guy who can take it.

He plays Teddy, a high school dropout who wants a job at a securities firm but needs a GED in order to get it, and to earn the kind of income that would make him a suitable match for his successful fiancée (Megalyn Echikunwoke).

And so it's onto night school, where he tries to scam his way through a course offered by a tough-love instructor, Carrie (Haddish), who teaches math and science to a roomful of adult misfits.

Director Malcolm Lee has always been generous to supporting players (giving Haddish enough room in the Girls Trip ensemble to cement her stardom), and he gives a lot of screen time to the comedy pros who play Teddy's fellow students.

Romany Malco steals scenes as an anti-tech conspiracy theorist, as does Mary Lynn Rajskub, playing a put-upon stay-at-home mom who's eyeing an empty-nest future with barely concealed enthusiasm (her candid and increasingly distressing accounts of life at home always conclude with the half-hearted disclaimer of "But I'm blessed"). Teddy is also forced to move back in with his folks, where Keith David plays a father amusingly unable and unwilling to conceal withering disappointment.

Elsewhere, the movie allows Hart to riff in slapstick situations: Teddy fears he can't pass the midterm, so he leads a nighttime raid on the principal's office to steal a test. And he gets a demeaning part-time job as a rooster-suited mascot for a restaurant chain that sells "Christian chicken," fending off the taunts of angry motorists who chide him for not being woke.

All of this is in Hart's wheelhouse, and Night School might have fared better if it had surrendered completely to random comedy one-offs. It keeps coming back, though, to the desultory story of Teddy's strained romance, the least-compelling feature of the movie.

In fact, the more time Hart and Haddish spend on screen together, the more their growing chemistry seems to point to a romance between their characters, a possibility the movie finds a definitive way to negate.

Even so, it's hard to go back to caring whether Teddy ever patches things up with his fiancée, who wanders out of the picture in act two. And though reformed hustler Teddy learns his lesson, and eventually his lessons, the never-in-doubt resolution to his character arc contributes to the sense that story-wise, Night School is going through the motions.

MOVIES

Night School

  • Directed by Malcolm Lee. With Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Romany Malco, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Keith David. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
  • Parents guide: PG-13 (language)
  • Running time:  111 minutes
  • Playing at: Area theaters