Tag Archives: D-

NIGHT SCHOOL

Producer: William Packer and Kevin Hart
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Writer: Kevin Hart, Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, Matthew Kellard, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg
Stars: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Romany Malco, Anne Winters, Fat Joe, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Taran Killam, Ben Schwartz, Yvonne Orji, Keith David and Loretta Devine
Studio: Universal Pictures

D-

As flat and generic as its title, “Night School” is a limp comedy that comes off like a cruelly extended episode of a bad classroom-based network sitcom (though one with rougher language than would be permissible on the tube). A running-time that approaches two full hours is explicable only by the fact that the dreary screenplay is credited to (or to be blamed on) no fewer than six writers, and it must have been a contractual obligation to include the worst ideas provided by each of them.

Kevin Hart, whose company produced the misfire and also headed the bevy of scripters, plays Teddy Walker, who’s introduced as a very old-looking high-school student flunking out and being harassed by his classmate and nemesis Stuart (Taran Killam). Years later, he’s a salesman at a place that sells BBQ grills, successful because of his motor-mouthed skill with customers he’s sized up for big purchases. But that’s not enough for him; he’s got a flashy car and expensive clothes, all to impress his girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a well-heeled executive for whom he buys a big engagement ring his buddy Marvin (Ben Schwartz), a financial advisor, reminds him he can’t afford.

When he pops the question in the BBQ showroom, disaster strikes when a propane container catches fire and blows the place up. Suddenly unemployed, he’s told he must get his GED to find a new job, but when he returns to his old high school to try to finesse a diploma, whom should he find sitting in the principal’s chair but old Stuart? Nevertheless he’s compelled to let Teddy join the night class taught by dedicated, tough-talking Carrie (Tiffany Haddish).

The other students are oddballs, of course. There are Mac (Rob Riggle), a big lunkhead who’s agreed to get his degree to convince his son to stay in school; Theresa (Lynn Rajskub), a housewife with three kids continually trying to convince herself she’s happy; Jaylen (Romany Malco), a conspiracy buff; Mila (Anne Winters), an apathetic teen dropout; and Luis (Al Madrigal), who just happens to be the waiter Teddy just got fired. There’s also Bobby (Fat Joe), a convict who joins them by skype.

With such a cast, you can expect a few good moments. Hart and Carrie trade insults at a ridiculously long stoplight early on (curiously enough, the incident isn’t mentioned when they later meet), and Malco milks the goofy conspiratorial stuff pretty effectively. A few good moments also come from Keith David, doing his stentorian stuff as Teddy’s disappointed dad.

But most of the cast, quite frankly, is pretty much wasted, and despite all the writers on hand, the episodes haven’t been assembled into a coherent whole. One example can suffice. At one point the students are trapped on the roof of the school. Mac tries to jump to an adjacent roof, doesn’t make it and falls to the cement steps below; he lies their contorted, looking as though he’s broken his back, and Jaylen vomits on him from above (an upchuck scene is, of course, obligatory in a movie like this). Then cut to the next day: the students are back in class (no explanation of how they got off the roof) and Mac seems none the worse for wear. Even in a farce, such illogic won’t play.

But certainly the worst aspect of the script is that, late in the day, Terry’s troubles in dealing with mastering material are explained medically: he’s diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia and a host of other learning disabilities. How does Carrie help him overcome these? By dragging him into a mixed martial arts cage and beating him up until he understands the subjects, ordering him to “focus” until he does. This gives Hart and Haddish an opportunity to do some physical comedy, of course, but from the point of view of people actually afflicted with such problems, it’s unbelievably insulting.

Moreover, that sequence, like so much of the picture, is atrociously directed by Malcolm D. Lee. “Night School” has no shape or rhythm; scenes play out sluggishly, further slowed down by innumerable reaction shots, and then linger for a few dreary seconds before finally ending. That just reinforces the feeling that what we have here isn’t a movie—it’s a series of individual sketches stitched together haphazardly into a two-hour revue, which would be fine if they were funny; they’re not. The picture is pretty threadbare technically as well, though at least for a change Atlanta is playing itself rather than serving as an unconvincing stand-in for some other city.

There’s no need for you to register at this “School.”

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

Producer: Brian Henson, Jeffrey Hayes, Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Todd Berger
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Victor Yerrid and Michael McDonald
Studio: STXfilms

D-

One has to wonder what the late Jim Henson would think of his son Brian’s decision to take the family business into hard-R territory via a division called Henson Alternative. But whether he would have approved of the attempt or not, his boy’s initial effort along those lines is definitely a pseudo-Muppet movie that, while being way too raunchy for kids, has little to offer to adults, either. “The Happytime Murders” is a debacle of “Howard the Duck” proportions.

The premise is curiously reminiscent of Netflix’s recent bomb “Bright.” Los Angeles is once again a place divided in population terms, except that the downtrodden minority this time around consists of puppets rather than orcs. As in the earlier movie, however, one of the critters did successfully break the barrier against puppets serving on the LAPD—Phil Phillips (voiced and operated by Bill Barretta).

Phil’s stint on the force ended in ignominy, though, when he failed to rescue his human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who was being held hostage by a puppet criminal. Phil’s shot went wild, killing a hapless puppet walking with his daughter on the street. Edwards was wounded too, and in a panic Phil took her to a hospital exclusive to his own species, where she was fitted with a puppet liver. That explains why she has a craving for sugar, and is so contemptuous of Phil, who was deemed unwilling to shoot other of his kind and removed from the department.

Now Phil is a private eye in cynical Sam Spade mode, and he takes on the case of Sandra White (Dorien Davies), an extra-sultry femme fatale who’s being blackmailed. The investigation takes him to a puppet sex shop, where a masked intruder kills a bunch of workers and customers, including Mr. Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), who was once a regular on “The Happytime Gang,” a popular TV show that a bevy of the furry critters shared with a single human, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who was also once Phil’s girlfriend.

When Connie arrives to take charge of the crime scene, she brusquely dismisses him until another killing occurs—of Phil’s own brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), who played a cop on “Happytime.” Accepting Phil’s hypothesis that the culprit is targeting cast members, LAPD Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), a crusty old school cop, orders Connie and Phil to work together on the case. As they do so and corpses (or more accurately bits of fabric) pile up, of course, the animosity between them two melts away. Ultimately the identity of the villain and the motive behind the killings are revealed.

On the one hand “The Happytime Murders” is a spoof of pulp-based movies like “The Maltese Falcon,” much as earlier Muppet features from the Henson stable took on took on other genres or just remade classics like “A Christmas Carol” or “Treasure Island.” While all of them were family-oriented, however, this one is most defiantly not. It revels in vulgarity, whether it be in the non-stop dropping of F-bombs, the casual nastiness as puppet characters are beaten, torn apart or kicked around, or—most significantly—scenes that would, if played by human actors, be the stuff of X-rate porn. The most extreme example is a long sequence in which Phil and Sandra engage in an impromptu bout of steamy sex in his office as Banning, an officious FBI agent (Joel McHale) and Phil’s secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) embarrassedly listen to the action—a lot of white Silly String explodes in all directions as Phil reaches the point of no control. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg, as it were.

One’s ability to enjoy this will depend on whether you find grossness for the sake of grossness any more tolerable when it’s enacted by Muppets rather than human beings. If you’re a big fan of Apatow-style comic raunchiness and its inferior imitators, of course, this might be to your taste (or lack thereof); but Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” movies, among others, played much the same tune as this one on a smaller scale, and Henson’s doesn’t mark any improvement on them.

Certainly the movie has little else going for it: the plot is as dopey as anything on the old Muppet Show, and the dialogue drips with the sort of goofy malapropism and parody the series specialized in, but it all seems drearily uninspired this time around. McCarthy offers another of her frantic, frenzied, deeply unfunny turns, and Banks is pretty much wasted, although Rudolph manages to get a few laughs as Phil’s absurdly loyal secretary.

There is, however, a lot of technical dexterity behind the work of animating the puppets and ensuring that the interaction between them and the human actors is smooth and seamless; footage during the prolonged final credits testifies to the efforts of the puppeteers and crew in choreographing things. Praise is certainly due the Henson factory and cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen for putting it all together so skillfully.

It’s a pity their talents weren’t in the service of better material.