Get Hard: New Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy accused of racism and homophobia

Critic: "It played pretty well, as comedies tend to do at festivals – even if they’re as bad as Get Hard"

In their new movie, Get Hard, Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart play a convicted insider trader and the black employee who he enlists to help prepare him for the challenges of life behind bars. But if the reactions of the crowd at this week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival screening are any guide, it’s the comedians themselves who’ll need to toughen up to face a potential controversy.

During a Q&A session after Monday night’s screening in Austin, Texas, several audience members voiced discomfort at the film’s broad gay and racial jokes, which some thought spilled into racism and homophobia. One stood up to tell writer-director Etan Cohen: “As a fellow Jew, I’ve got to say that this film seemed racist as fuck.”

Mr Cohen reportedly seemed taken aback by the comment, but acknowledged that the level of racial humour in the film was “a delicate balance to find”, adding: “It was hard to modulate ... how far to push it.” The director said Get Hard had been put before test screening audiences just as protests were taking place across the US over the killing by a white police officer of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

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Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell and director Etan Cohen (AP)

Get Hard will be released by Warner Brothers in the US and UK on 27 March. In the film, Ferrell plays James King, a Los Angeles investment banker and entitled one-percenter sentenced to 10 years in a tough California prison for dubious financial dealings. Terrified that he will be assaulted in jail, he asks Darnell (Hart), who washes his car, to teach him how to survive.

King assumes Darnell is an ex-convict, going by the statistic that a third of black men in the US will be incarcerated during their life. Darnell does not disabuse him of that notion, even though he is, in fact, a law-abiding family man who needs the cash that King offers to set up his own car wash and provide for his wife and child.

The film takes aim at stereo-types of African-Americans, Latinos, white supremacists and the wealthy Wasp elite. But for some viewers, it was not the racial jokes but the film’s sexual humour that seemed most offensive, with Variety critic Justin Chang writing that Get Hard contains, “some of the ugliest gay-panic humour to befoul a studio release in recent memory”.

To prime himself for the possibility of prison rape, Ferrell’s character offers to perform oral sex on a gay man in a public lavatory, telling him: “I’m going to suck your dick.” So revolted is he by the task at hand, however, that he breaks down in tears.

Hitfix.com reviewer Drew McWeeny described the film as “competently made but morally repellent”, arguing that it “plays into this idea that gay sex is somehow inherently more disgusting than regular sex”.

Another audience member asked the film-makers if they  were truly satirising stereo-types, or perpetuating them. “When you do satire, that’s a big problem,” Cohen replied. “That’s a dangerous thing. It’s a very small window – that’s what we’re trying to find.”

Though early reviewers of the film have expressed distaste at its edgier jokes, the broad tenor of the critical response is one of disappointment, that two comic talents of the stature of Ferrell and Hart should combine for such an unappealing comedy. During the SXSW screening, Mr Chang said: “There was a lot of laughter in the room and the movie played pretty well, as comedies tend to do at festivals – even if they’re as bad as Get Hard.”

Before the film began, Hart invited those who enjoyed it to review it on Twitter afterwards, adding: “If you don’t like it, what I want you to do is go in the middle of the street and kill yourself.”

Ferrell suggested he was not so au fait with Twitter, and asked fans instead to send him “handwritten notes ... on nice stationery”.

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