DIR: Malcolm D. Lee • WRI: Kevin Hart, Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, Matthew Kellard, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg • DOP: Greg Gardiner • ED: Paul Millspaugh • DES: Keith Brian Burns • PRO: Kevin Hart MUS: David Newman • CAST: Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Taran Killam
“Pubes and racism”
This dialogue, prompted by an uncomfortable and farcical exchange at a fancy restaurant, captures the essence of Night School in a nutshell. It is a film made up of silly scenarios patched together to tell the story of Teddy Walker, top salesperson at BBQ City and boyfriend to financially independent and high-flyer, Lisa. Teddy must attend night school, where he encounters an ensemble of misfit adult-classmates, a no-nonsense teacher and a school principal with whom he has a troubled history, to pass the GED exams he failed to sit as a teenager. The narrative unfolds with a light, but deliberate eye on racist behaviour and prejudices.
Malcolm D. Lee’s follow up to Girls Trip begins in Atlanta, 2001, as a teenage Teddy defiantly refuses to take his exams in an apparent act of nonconformity. Fast-forward to the present day and Teddy’s inability to obtain any qualifications has not hindered his success or happiness. That is until, following a series of misfortunes, he finds himself unemployed and thus, jeopardising his future with his girlfriend Lisa. Unbeknownst to her, he enrols in a night school so that he can pass his GED and qualify for a new job that will allow him to live the life of abundance that he has been masquerading to her.
It becomes apparent early on that the narrative relies upon Teddy misinterpreting the nature of his own relationship with Lisa as he feels incapable of sustaining it without playing the role of provider. He demonstrates elements of fragile masculinity as he attempts to hold on to an outdated understanding of gender roles. This compromises the credibility of the relationship, a crucial component for the film’s narrative to function. Additionally, the relationship loses prominence in the film’s narrative, coming secondary to Teddy’s experiences at night school, therefore rendering his reason for enrolling in it virtually immaterial. The narrative is taken over by episodic sequences which are largely played out for their own sake as opposed to contributing to the narrative.
Carrie, Teddy’s tough-love teacher, plays well in contrast with the protagonist. She is introduced as a potential sparring partner for Teddy as they first encounter each another side-by-side at traffic lights. Carrie’s willingness to take him into her class after their initial encounter is an incompatible act when compared with her character’s previous behaviour. There is a lack of consistency in this character as her point-of-view seems to fluctuate throughout the film. However, she provides a much-needed grounding in the midst of the off-the-wall night-school students and her investment in Teddy’s learning potential is vital for the narrative to advance, in spite of it seeming unlikely.
In a film that strives on a series of wholesome hijinks, Teddy’s attitude and actions makes it challenging to be on his side. Perhaps being sandwiched between two strong, female characters makes it difficult to root for Teddy as the film’s protagonist which, all-in-all, is a positive complaint to have.
Overall, Night School is full to the brim of gags and goofy antics but a lack of empathy for the characters whose motivations are inconsistent and sometimes flawed means that the comedy is not always effective.