Here's what matters most: You will laugh. Kevin Hart on a stage before thousands, yapping for more than an hour? I don't care what kind of miserable killjoy you are, you're going to laugh. There are two reasons you might be offended — you may find the material either too filthy or too familiar, almost defiantly inconsequential — but when the pipsqueak Philly motormouth builds to one of his bravura set pieces, like the one where he acts out the stiff-legged balling of a man with no kneecaps, I don't care whether you're Mike Pence depressed after putting a pet down. Your ass will laugh.
If you've never seen Hart perform stand-up, What Now? might be a revelation. Turns out the shouty little fellow from a run of popular/terrible movies is hugely, hilariously funny. He's funny the way a good pratfall is, or some old cartoon you've loved since you were a kid: Even when you see the joke coming, you’ll probably laugh in anticipation. He's part cartoon himself, possibly too much at times, a horndog 'fraidy-cat fast-talker whose marvelously animated walking cycle is often funnier than his gag lines.
In What Now?, his latest concert film, before an audience of 50,000 at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, Hart debuts these new walks: a raccoon; that unbending no-kneed man; Kevin Hart trying to hold in a diarrhea attack at the airport; a terrified Kevin Hart leaning way back as he investigates a dark and scary hallway; Kevin Hart trying to walk past a pocket-pussy sex toy in his hotel room without fucking it; a woman who has lost her shoulders in a shark attack constantly being mistaken for a beauty queen. (That one's convoluted.) Each is precise, controlled, manic, absurd, stand-up verging on dance. The best have some observational power — “You ever get so scared you don't know where to put your hands at?” — but even the nonsense had me in fits.
Hart has a killer set of comedy skills: his commanding squeak and squawk; his ranting finesse; his sense of drama and escalation; his ability to root even Dada material in a regular-guy persona; his ability to make himself the joke yet still to be the likable alpha rocking a gold chain thick as a lei. Above all else is his commitment. That business about a woman without shoulders is a dumb scrap of an idea that Hart doggedly inflates and lifts into something memorable, something irresistible. It might not slay you, but it's impressive, like if he singlehandedly built, blew up and worked all the towlines to pilot a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.
When the joke’s more than a scrap, Hart’s as good as any comic in the game. He talks at the crowd like he's confessing, like he's letting us all in on his true self, even as much of the material could have been professionally tailored for him like Bob Hope's was — the upshot of many bits is the same as Hope's: that Hart's a coward easily distracted by beauty and that he'll always choose himself above all else. He opens the stage set with a long, winning discussion of his fear of animal attacks, first at his home in a Los Angeles suburb and then in a series of daft hypotheticals, some he insists were posed by his fiancée: “If I got attacked by an animal, you wouldn't come out and help me?” he asks, in her voice.
His response, after an exquisitely measured pause: “I said, 'Depends on the animal.'”
Hart's topics aren't always inspired. He closes with a long run about being confused by the Starbucks menu, and the show's nadir is a too-silly story of him being scared out of his own home after watching The Conjuring. In that bit, he fails to judge shrewdly the balance between Hart the man and Hart the cartoon — it's about the kind of one-note characters Hart plays in iffy comedies rather than about Hart himself. He also seems to have been inspired by the plotting and pacing of those movies, as the set's climax is goosed, artificially, by callback after callback to the earlier bits, with little interior logic — it's the stand-up equivalent of those ‘80s teen comedies where every minor character we've met suddenly hooks up at the prom.
Besides those lapses, What Now? showcases the differences between Hart the one-man stand-up dynamo and Hart the comedy movie star. The concert footage is bookended by vaguely parodic movie scenes of Hart, trim and dapper in a tux, as a James Bond–style super spy. His character, a shrill idiot, doesn't understand the rules of the million-dollar card game he gets embroiled in, and he spends too many seconds objecting to the thought of having cards “in the hole.” Halle Berry and Don Cheadle turn up to be cheered and razzed, but the sequence is flatly busy and unpersuasive. Hart gets a couple laughs, but he's constrained, not by the monkey suit but by the writing, the editing, the bit's uncertain conception.
Tim Story, the director of the sequence and Hart's Ride Along buddy-cop series, takes it on faith that the mere idea of Hart as Bond is hysterical. But it isn't. Yes, Hart is short. So are Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise and Prince. Hart's handsome, confident, buff and powerfully charismatic. So far, only his best conceived but least profitable films (About Last Night, The Wedding Ringer) have acknowledged this. In his stand-up, he's a man touched with cartoon; in his comedies he's a cartoon touched with man.
Kevin Hart: What Now?
Starring Kevin Hart, Dennis Keiffer, Richardson Jones, Ben Seaward, and Jeff Baumann. Directed by Leslie Small and Tim Story. Written by Kevin Hart, Harry Ratchford, and Joey Wells. 96 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, October 14, in theaters everywhere.