By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 07, 2015 at 7:16 PM

Will Ferrell and his regular collaborator Adam McKay make silly, dumb movies. But underneath the shirtless screaming, songs to scotch and various other man-baby behaviors, the two tend to toss in some social commentary as well.

In between dog punting, dolphin musical numbers and massive newscaster brawls, the two "Anchorman" movies touched on sexism in the workplace and the dumbing down of media. McKay helped write the story for Ferrell’s underappreciated political goof "The Campaign," while the otherwise silly buddy cop comedy "The Other Guys" ends with a barrage of infographics explaining Wall Street’s extreme wealth and recession-causing shenanigans. These movies may be stupid, but they’re also stupid like a fox.

The new comedy "Get Hard," on the other hand, is stupid like a pigeon. McKay only has a story credit here – shared with co-writers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel – and what a story it is: A rich white dude hires a struggling black man to teach him how to avoid getting raped in prison. That’s the kind of premise that instantly gets every think piece writer in the nation eagerly leaning toward his or her "problematic" button (the ad campaign, featuring a flurry of prison rape jokes and the typically stodgy Ferrell attempting to act black, hasn’t helped).

There’s a glimmer of what McKay and company’s usual comedic mix of awareness and absurdity are trying to do with this borderline questionable concept. Handled with a smart and clever edge, the film could’ve been a sharp, funny mockery of race relations, stereotypes and the country’s obliviously wealthy haves. However, handle it poorly – steer it down the path of lazy execution and lazier gags – and, well, you get "Get Hard."

Ferrell plays James King, a big shot stockbroker with a life befitting his last name. He lives in a mansion, makes millions a day, and is chummy with his boss (Craig T. Nelson) who conveniently happens to be the father of his beautiful fiancé (Alison Brie, "Community"). His perfect life comes crashing down, however, when he’s arrested for fraud and embezzlement in the middle of a jam session with John Mayer. James is adamant that he’s innocent, but even so, he’s harshly sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin.

With 30 days to get his affairs in order, an increasingly desperate James hires the help of Darnell (Hart), the owner of the small ragtag car wash station in the basement of James’ office. James doesn’t care about that, though; he cares that Darnell is black, which in his sheltered, privilege-addled mind must mean he’s been to prison. At first, Darnell understandably bristles at James’ racist assumptions and behavior, but after being offered $30,000 – just what he needs to send his daughter to private school – he leans into the stereotype, turning King’s estate into prison bootcamp (with James’ exasperated immigrant cleaning staff very happy to play along).

Clearly "Get Hard" wades into some touchy comedic waters, but at first glance, the crew behind the film would seem to be up to the task. Roberts and Martel have served as regular writers for "Key & Peele," while writer-director Etan Cohen helped make Robert Downey Jr. in blackface not only acceptable, but Oscar-nomination worthy hilarious in "Tropic Thunder." It’s disappointing then that their attempts to hit on race, sexuality and stereotypes here feel so uneasy and cheap.  

Most of the script plays an uneasy game of tit-for-tat. Hart’s Darnell mostly serves as the film’s regular straight man to Ferrell’s buffoon, and "Get Hard" literally takes a flamethrower to a white supremacist hangout. At the same time, the whole movie somewhat leans into James’ racist assumptions, making Darnell pretend to be more hyper-aggressive and stereotypically black and later visiting a ghetto hideout filled with gun-flaunting murderous gangsters, drugs and twerking. It feels a bit like battling stereotypes with more stereotypes.

The script’s bigger problem, however, might actually be with homophobia. A pretty galling percent of the jokes in "Get Hard" revolve around prison rape (because sexual assault is hilarious if it happens to criminals, right?). It’s an ugly topic to base much of a movie’s humor around, and it doesn’t get much better when Darnell takes James to a gay hotspot in the hopes of getting him more experience with sex with men.

Once again, the script tries to play tit-for-tat by introducing a gay character who Darnell eventually befriends. But he’s also just another mincing gay stereotype, and the whole scene is handled with an awkward squeemishness. A shot of a penis is so quickly spliced in that you wonder if Tyler Durden was the editor. Its whole attitude plays like Macklemore’s "Same Love": Being a homosexual is fine, but phew, I’m not one.

So yes, "Get Hard" is problematic (and that’s without mentioning the not exactly glowing roster of female roles either), but worse than that, it’s simply not that funny. The movie snags a few laughs when it sets its sights on the privileged ignorance of the one-percent (one choice line finds James’ boss looking back on starting the company with just "me, my computer and an $8 million loan from my father"). For the most part, though, the jokes – when they’re not unsettlingly fixated on prison rape – are mostly just plain dumb and obvious. There’s not one but two bare butt jokes within the first five minutes – the first one teased for seemingly hours – and as you’d expect, the film’s double entendre title is used as the heavily repeated laugh line for not one, but two scenes.

The movie serves as Cohen’s first go-around behind the camera, and it shows. The direction feels like an afterthought, with jokes and scenes flatly and lifelessly dumped on screen with little energy (also: why the on-screen countdown, other than to remind the audience how much longer they’re stuck in solitary confinement). Several gags – like Hart playing all three parts in a fake prison yard scrum – seem to go on forever, and some just aren’t even set up right. Cohen has a big, goofy sequence all set to reveal Ferrell wearing a bright Lil Wayne-approved outfit … but the shot right before already shows it. He accidentally hits the punch line early, then repeats it for another 10 seconds, just louder.

Cohen’s grip on the story isn’t much better. Even though the screenplay establishes James as innocent and unveils the villains fairly early on, our protagonists don’t actual get around to doing anything about it – or even discussing it – until well into the final act, making much of the movie feel like a waste, a bunch of needless, moderately amusing goofing around with a tasteless slathering of prison rape jokes. Plus, making James an innocent amongst the stock market corruption removes much of the oomph from the social commentary and his character’s evolution.

The good news for "Get Hard" is that it stars Ferrell and Hart, two go-for-it goofball comedians who work probably way too hard for this material. But god bless them for doing so because they manage a few movie-salvaging laughs along the way. Hart is oddly reigned in from his usual caffeinated electric squirrel routine, but he makes for a fun, energetic straight man constantly baffled by the sheltered idiot he’s partnered with (I particularly enjoyed his modest disbelieving exasperation while stabbing Ferrell’s weak points with a remote). And when the time comes to go off, few others are as manically entertaining.

He makes for a fine comedic companion for Ferrell, who busts out his usual innocently egotistical doofus shtick. He coerces out what little laughter there is to be found in these jokes, spitting out goofily square profanities and playing pathetic rather well – especially when Hart sics him on some tough guys in park, leaving him barely able to flip the bird without going fetal.

Combine the two stars – too naturally funny to keep a movie house completely silent – with the premise’s potential, and "Get Hard" feels more like an execution misfire than a straight-up complete mess. It definitely wants to say something – the opening credit sequence even juxtaposes the rich with those struggling to get by – but just seems uncomfortable or uncertain with how to do it, especially with humor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the laughs to hide that fact. If you’re going to joke about touchy topics, they better land. Because if the audience isn’t laughing, they’ll start filling the void with wondering why they’re not laughing and why you’d write those jokes. And then the word "problematic" starts buzzing around. Just ask Trevor Noah.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.