Gay panic: The motion pictureMovie Review Thursday, March 26th, 2015
People laughed during the preview screening of Get Hard. This is what bothered me most about the comedy featuring Will Ferrell as a clueless finance executive who hires a much more clueful Kevin Hart to prepare him for 10 years in prison. More than how terribly made it is, how pathetic and offensive its humor is, how simply dumb it is, what irks me most about Get Hard is that people liked it. And more than whether or not the people in Hollywood are gay, straight, black, white, conservative or progressive, Get Hard’s tickets sales are what will ensure that Hollywood continues to make movies like Get Hard, movies that, yes, are inept, but are also, and more importantly, bad for our culture.
Ferrell plays James King, an extremely successful investment banker engaged to the hot, but spoiled daughter (Alison Brie) of the boss he idolized (Craig T. Nelson). At their engagement party, James is arrested for embezzlement and fraud, and because of either idiocy or astonishing entitlement, he thinks his innocence will keep him from prison. So, he refuses a plea deal, and gets a decade in San Quentin. After getting dumped and realizing he can’t escape his fate, he hires the manager of the little car wash company set up in his firm’s parking garage to teach him how to survive prison. Darnell (Kevin Hart) has never been to prison; in fact, he’s never even had a parking ticket. But because Darnell is black, James just assumes he’s been to prison. And Darnell needs the $30,000 James is offering because he wants to move out of Crenshaw to a safer neighborhood with better schools for his daughter.
Hilarity, in theory, should ensue. To be truthful, I laughed several times. Some of the racial humor involving James’s naiveté about black culture is funny, if clichéd and obvious. Kevin Hart’s responses to James, if silly, earned my chuckles. And some of their throw-away lines, most likely improvisation, were great, things like the string of absurdly original, often physically impossible, threats James makes while trying to learn to be threatening.
But even those were a continuation of one of the two jokes that the entire film rests on: There’s nothing more terrifying than gay sex except for forced gay sex. Having a sexual relationship with another inmate is seen as horrifying, as truly cruel punishment, and these jokes are bluntly, ridiculously homophobic. The joke is not about how silly James’s fear of gay sex is but rather how disgusting, bizarre and wrong gay sex is. A scene where Darnell takes James to a gay brunch spot and makes him pick up a guy and learn how to give a blowjob – yes, this is something that actually happens – was met with howls of laughter by the audience with whom I saw the film. James of course doesn’t go through with it, but he gets close enough, while making a face of such discomfiting horror, to make everyone watching uncomfortable. Some people find that discomfort hilarious. I was appalled, dumbstruck. Another gay critic who I was sitting with had been silent for the film up until then, when he said to me, “What the fuck am I watching?” What the fuck indeed.
The jokes about anal rape are constant. These jokes are the red meat of bro humor. According to our filmed popular culture, which may or may not reflect our actual culture, the worst fate for a heterosexual American man is the emasculation and humiliation of being raped by a man, so threatening someone with that fate, joking about that fate, basing an entire film plot on the fear of that fate is normal. Or as Will Ferrell told HitFix, “The premise of the movie is addressing the fears that someone may have going into prison. We didn’t come up with those fears. They’re just a societal norm.”
It’s a complex problem, though, because rape is horrible. And prison rape is horrible. But it’s not the violence or the violation that is what is joked about, it is the loss of masculinity, it is becoming the bitch to a man more powerful and more manly than you. This anxiety is at the heart of the gay panic defense for violent reactions to same sex flirtation. Making an entire film that encourages this norm, this fear, the basis for so much homophobia, is bad for our culture, and Ferrell, a supposed progressive, is either as clueless as James or being disingenuous.
Hart, in response to the same criticism, explained, “I said to myself, ‘funny is funny.’ And at the end of the day, funny is funny regardless of what area it’s coming from.” That’s just not true. Funny is not physics. It’s not a universal truth, like force equals mass times acceleration. It’s culturally, historically, situationally specific, and sometimes what you think is funny is hurtful to someone else and your laughter makes that hurt worse. Your laughter at that joke about anal rape makes homophobia worse, makes actual rape more stigmatized and makes prison worse. And people laughed at Get Hard. A lot of them.
Directed by Etan Cohen
Written by Jay Martel, Ian Roberts and Etan Cohen
Starring Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart and Craig T. Nelson
At your local multiplex
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