It is hard to argue that any comedian alive has as unique of a stage presence as Kevin Hart. When on stage, Hart is able to expand, making his presence not just known, but making it the center of any scene he is in. This sort of attention is a double-edged sword since it could easily turn into something negative if Hart doesn’t have anything meaningful or interesting to say. Kevin Hart: What Now? poses a question that Hart continues to get asked, and probably has asked himself. After seeing a very familiar routine performed, I can only assume that even Hart hasn’t figured out how to move forward since he’s still relying on tactics from his past.
The key to a great stand-up set is to make it relatable to audiences everywhere. Hart makes cultural jokes and jokes about different cultures clashing. Sometimes they prove to be instantly relatable like his observations about relationship miscommunications or having to face a menacing raccoon (yeah, I’ve experienced this one before), but then there are his jokes that center around his son’s perceived femininity stemming from his interactions with white people. Hart has had a long history of projecting a toxic view of masculinity in all of his work and every “character” he plays. The characters end up being just an extension of himself, but with different backgrounds and backstories. More than a few of his jokes include him aggressively trying to defend his heterosexuality while (hopefully, accidentally) putting down homosexuality. It appears to be an unavoidable part of his comedy dynamic and makes up at least a quarter of this performance. Don’t even get me started on his views on women since you rarely hear him call them anything other than “bitches”.
This expected bigotry aside, the rest of the comedy was engaging, self-referential, and outrageous. Being able to connect previous jokes and punchlines into the current story being told is a clever way to unite the performance and successfully establish some comedic synergy. Like many other comedians, Hart employs the use of repetition to make certain phrases stick with the audience to the point that he feeds them a queue and they respond with the phrase. Judging by the audience in my screening, this was an overwhelming success. It may be a great method of memorization, but as a comedic strategy, it falls short. And no, that wasn’t a joke about Kevin Hart’s height. Being bombarded with the same punchline over and over provides diminishing returns after each use, turning the once funny joke into a predictable annoyance.
What does help the sometimes stale jokes is the interactive staging, created by longtime Hart director Leslie Small. It is obvious that Small understands every aspect of Hart’s style and he plays to his strengths with his handling of the camera work and stage direction. The moving screens and lighting create an engaging atmosphere that adds a visual layer to every one of Hart’s bits. If felt very much like a pop-up book with Hart popping out of different landscapes that fit the story he is telling. The film uses some fun cinematic scenes as bookends. They imagine Hart’s life if it were written by Ian Fleming. Hart plays himself giving his best Bond impersonation as he enters a reenactment of Casino Royale. Accompanied by great cameos from Halle Berry and Don Cheadle, director of the cinematic scenes Tim Story creates a great spy spoof that almost makes you wish would be explored for the rest of the film.
Aside from the brief cameos from other actors at the beginning and end, this is totally Kevin Hart’s show and he won’t let you forget it. He delivers on the near manic energy that he is known for. His enthusiasm never waivers and he doesn’t show a single ounce of fatigue, which is admirable. His consistency throughout the entire performance. The problem with consistency is that it almost feels like he is plateauing. The entire show should be building up to a climax at the end of the show, but Hart finishes abruptly and unceremoniously. All the momentum he spends the entire performance building up quickly dissipates when he tells what should be the show-stopping punchline, but ends up being a disappointing, show-ending quip at best.
In an ironic twist, only Kevin Hart newbies will enjoy the experience of Kevin Hart: What Now?. This may seem like a counterintuitive statement, but people thinking of using this film as their diving point won’t find his humor as rehashed or tired as people who are familiar with his stand-up and past film work. The cinematic scenes in combination with the visually enjoyable staging make this the perfect Kevin Hart film to start with, if not the only one you should probably watch.