At their best, comedians serve as modern-day philosophers, shaping the culture by reflecting it back at audiences with just the right balance of truth and humor. It’s why the work of people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor has sustained such lasting appeal for decades. Their comedy isn’t so much a series of jokes as it is a social commentary on issues like sex, politics, and religion, all of which are at the very core of who we are as individuals and as a society. However, not all comedians aim for such lofty goals with their material, opting instead for a more observational, story-based approach. This is precisely what moviegoers are in for with Kevin Hart: What Now?
While Hart’s comedy might not dig as deep as his aforementioned forefathers, this new concert film – the comedian’s third such big-screen release after 2011’s Laugh at My Pain and 2013’s Let Me Explain – serves as both a celebration of his accomplishments to date and an exhibition of the comic stylings that have made him arguably the most successful comedian working today. Filmed live in front of a record-breaking crowd of 53,000 people at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in August 2015, the film is rightfully billed as “the comedy event that made history.” Directed by Leslie Small, the bulk of What Now? consists of Hart’s material from his concert tour of the same name, and once the show kicks in, it flows pretty consistently from start to finish.
During his set, Hart – clad in a leather jacket that calls to mind both Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, two of Hart’s influences – touches on a variety of topics ranging from the mundane to the absurd. Many of these stories tie directly back to his relationships with his father, his wife, and his children, bringing a universally relatable quality to each bit that makes it easy to see why Hart’s career has skyrocketed. From his fear of The Conjuring to his first visit to Starbucks, the comedian breezes from one story to the next, employing his signature enthusiasm with every punchline.
Though at times he tends to lean too heavily into frantic actions and loud shrieks to sell a given joke, the broad style of Hart’s comedy manages to compensate for any overdone moments. In fact, it’s often the contrast inherent in his casual delivery of a zinger that makes for some of the most memorable moments of What Now? Hart’s actual stand-up set is so strong that the weakest part of What Now? is easily the extended opening sequence that is so prominently played up in the trailers.
Tim Story – who worked with Hart on both the Think Like a Man and Ride Along franchises – directs the seemingly interminable sequence intended to serve as a James Bond parody. Visions of floating bullets and playing cards appear over a very Bond-esque theme song, all of which are intended as visual callbacks to Casino Royale and Skyfall. Unfortunately, there’s nothing funny or fresh about these opening credits, and the subsequent footage incorporates a card game, a few celebrity cameos and a bloody fight sequence in the hopes of creating a false context leading right up to the moment Hart takes the stage.
There’s even a clichéd Russian gangster dubbed “Really Evil Villain” by a title card. The ill-conceived opener clearly hoped to play up the epicness of the subsequent show but instead undermines it. As a result, the entire pre-stage introduction (and, yes, the concluding bookend) feels like what it is: a lame attempt to pad out Hart’s concert so that it reaches the 90-minute mark. That aside, What Now? is a fun time at the theater, even though none of Hart’s material transcends the medium to deliver a game-changing stand-up comedy experience.
In recent years, Hart’s career has exploded from the stage to the big screen (both Central Intelligence and The Secret Life of Pets were among this summer’s biggest hits). However, What Now? gives moviegoers a chance to experience firsthand the skill that has made him a modern comedy icon. Stand-up comedy concerts have never been a particularly big moneymaker – 1987 release Eddie Murphy Raw still stands as the all-time highest grosser with $50 million – but the cool $10 million budget for Kevin Hart: What Now? should instantly put it in the black. Existing fans of Hart’s comedy will likely be rolling in the aisles with the film, and those who have somehow escaped his stand-up work over the years have never had a more perfect opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.
Despite a tacked-on framing device that mostly falls flat, Kevin Hart: What Now? proves to be a laugh riot thanks to the comedian's high-energy delivery and the broad spectrum of relatable topics he integrates into his set.