When you watch a great stand-up comedian, like Richard Pryor or Bill Maher or Amy Schumer, there tends to be an inner cool calm about them, regardless of how wild or outrageous their jokes are. After all, they've got the audience in the palm of their hand, and know it; for 90 minutes, we're captive to the world according to them.
But Kevin Hart, in the concert film "Kevin Hart: What Now?," quips and monologs at a very different level of stand-up energy.
Pryor, the obvious godfather of the Hart style (a fusion of raging high dudgeon and scaredy-cat confession), sometimes raised his voice in the mock-scolding tones of a hollering preacher, but Hart tends to raise his voice and keep it raised. He shouts and screams and rasps and rants and talks excessively fast, as if his house were burning down and he was spewing instructions to the firemen on how to get there.
A little of this is funny, but a lot of it raises the question: Why is the new king of comedy working so hard to grab and hold our attention? Is he secretly worried he's going to lose it?
"What Now?" presents Kevin Hart as the master of his domain. The film was shot over two nights, on Aug. 29 and 30, 2015, in front of a stadium audience of 53,000 at the Lincoln Financial Field in Hart's hometown of Philadelphia. Hart, strutting the stage in black leather and gold chain, puts forth a line echoed by the film's ad campaign: that the sheer immensity of the show has set some sort of record. But who knew that size mattered in stand-up? Whatever the record is (the largest audience ever for a stand-up comedy show? The largest audience ever for a stand-up comedy show in Philadelphia?), there's a meaningless Trumpian bravura to the boast. The real truth is that the stadium setting doesn't feel quite right for stand-up -- it robs the show of conspiratorial intimacy -- and Hart, as if overcompensating, blares out most of his jokes and stories. He has obviously studied the masters, yet he seems to have missed one of the crucial lessons of Pryor and Eddie Murphy: In a stand-up film, you play to the crowd in front of you, but you also play to the camera -- that is, to the movie-theater audience, who can see (and hear) you a whole lot better.
Hart, on his own terms, is a highly skilled comedian who does indeed know how to present the world according to him. But it's a much broader and more cartoonish world than we're used to from his superstar predecessors. Early on, he does a routine about seeing a raccoon outside the window of his house and getting into a freaked-out duel with him. It's no ordinary raccoon: The critter stands right up, grabs his crotch, walks up to the window, and practically talks to Hart. When Pryor did routines like this, they were exaggerations rooted in reality (he was satirizing his own fear), but Hart seems to be talking, quite literally, about some crazed anthropomorphic raccoon who just stepped out of an animated nightmare. He leaps so quickly into exaggeration that he bypasses reality, and the result isn't very funny. Ditto for his routine about what you should do if you see your lady being chased by a Tasmanian Devil, or what she should do if an orangutan hops over the fence and steals her man's kneecaps. (Hello? Is Hart really scared of this stuff?)
The movie improves when Hart begins to drop a few observations about the politics of love, or his disappointment over the fact that "my kids don't have any edge." He does a good bit about being in the kitchen with his former street pals when his son embarrasses him with a stricken cry of "Dad! Wi-fi's down!" He's hilarious riffing on the discombobulation caused in him by a visit to Starbucks (which sounds like a musty target, but his existential breakdown feels all too genuine), and there's a very funny routine about how when he goes to Atlanta for a two-month-long movie shoot, he opens his suitcase, only to discover that his girlfriend has packed a "pocket p---y" in there. It's all to give Kevin a way to deal with his impulses that stops short of infidelity, and Hart, speaking from the heart, spins this into a bravura bit about purchasing (and using) the fake-body paraphernalia available in sex shops. The routine takes wing on his candor, though even here there's something very Kevin Hart about it: He seems to relate to a great many things -- Tasmanian Devils, fleshy sex toys -- that aren't human.
He also gravitates, by temperament, to extreme situations, and he's at his best near the end of the movie, doing a riff on his attempt to use a men's room in the San Francisco airport. Even the lead-up to this event is shot through with hyperbolic paranoid anxiety -- will one of the gossip magazines grab an image of him? With no toilet paper on the seat? And when he's caught, in the stall, by an imploring fan who won't leave without a photograph, the anxiety boils over into giggles. I just wish I could say the same for the movie's signature joke: Hart's impersonation of African-American women who offer a drippingly sarcastic "Really?" as a ritual statement of skepticism about more or less anything their men tell them. Whenever Hart returns to this gag, the film cuts to women in the audience chanting "Really?" right along with him, as if to say, each time: "Look at how much they love it! He's created a meme! And it's even kind of feminist!" Well, yes, but the meme doesn't expand or get funnier. It just becomes a sloganeering advertisement for the Kevin Hart brand.
Every stand-up comedian makes his or her own rules, and it may sound as if I'm not letting Hart be Hart. In "What Now?," 53,000 people obviously think he rules, and given his new status as one of the reigning superstars of action and romantic comedy, this deluxely packaged concert film should have no trouble connecting with his fan base. It's framed by a lavishly executed James Bond parody, with Hart sporting a tux and an 007 'tude, alongside a hilariously enraged Don Cheadle and a blithely blase Halle Berry (both playing themselves), that's over-the-top in all the right ways. Yet a stand-up-comedy concert film's prolog shouldn't be an appetizer that's more delectable than the main course. If you compare "What Now?" to an action comedy like "Central Intelligence," it turns out that the franchise-happy, cookie-cutter character Hart played in that movie actually had more human dimension than the "personal," confessional Hart we see up here on stage. Great stand-up comedy has to find the space to reveal something about the person making the jokes. Otherwise he's just screaming at his audience to laugh.