Here's the pipsqueak who has hauled himself up into a sharp-dressed leading man. Here's the comic who's boundlessly inventive in his swearing but also suave and commanding in pursuit of love, the motormouth horndog who yawps about like a puppy on fire but can melt your mother's heart with his warmth and sincerity. Kevin Hart is the ranter, the lover, the best friend, the short-fuse firecracker always just a spark away from exploding.
He's not just one of the best and most bankable of Hollywood's comedy stars. He's the rare go-for-broke movie comic to master the incompatible demands of movie comedy itself. He goes too far, works blue as hell, rants in that scraping, outraged shout of his, the syllables spat with a rapper's force and bounce. But then, when the professionally plotted studio features he stars in need us to feel good at the end, he can move and charm us, somehow without betraying the spirit of the dirty/funny/truth-spewing marvel we paid to see.
Contrast that with a Will Ferrell, a Melissa McCarthy, a Groucho. These performers scorch through the reality of any movie that holds them, which would be great if those movies' endings didn't then insist that these comics' society-destroying characters were actually goodhearted everyday mensches. The monstrous Ron Burgundy suddenly deserves Veronica Corningstone's love? Larcenous idiot Tammy has somehow gotten her life together? Anarchist Otis P. Driftwood gives a shit about those boring lovers?
Hart's conman, at the end of The Wedding Ringer, learns all the usual lessons. Friendship matters. Honesty matters. That he should open up to that nice girl who sees through his ruses. But Hart the actor, who always seems twice as smart as anyone else on the screen with him, actually sells all this, makes us feel the truths beneath the clichés. He never undercuts the material or suggests he knows it's hokey. More importantly, he makes all this funny — the imp of the first reels doesn't seem housebroken by the rediscovery of his decency in the last ones.
The Wedding Ringer is a farce, predicated on his character's dazzling deceptions, but Hart's performance at the climax, when those lies collapse, corresponds to everything that audiences loved at the start, as he first spun them. There's that same put-on cocksureness, the linguistic fireworks, the fast talk he hides behind like the fleshy necks those lizards flare up to confound predators, the sense that his character, however collected, is always just barely swallowing back the impulse to shout “Tittays!” Hart's conman's heart gets laid bare, and Hart gets funnier.
The movie itself's not masterful. In the first scenes, the rhythm of Hart's ravings seems dictated by quick cuts rather than the comic's timing. Also disappointing: The filthiest set piece, involving a dog licking peanut butter off a penis, is too filthy for the R rating, so the film haplessly suggests the act and its vague complications, leaving us to guess at what's happening as the scene descends into something like shock horror. But Hart's great, and the premise is the best for a crowd-pleasing comedy since The To-Do List. Hart plays Jimmy Callahan, whose cynical hustle makes the best possible use of the star's charisma: Jimmy rents himself out as a best man for grooms who can't find one, offering a glittering toast, a brilliant charm offensive, and — this goes unstated in the film — the chance for well-heeled white guys to be honored in public by the coolest of black BFFs.
The script airs some notions about the rarity of close male friendships, and of many men's reluctance to speak with intimacy about each other's lives, but it shies away from the richer subtext: the idea of black hipness — and black approval — as a high-dollar commodity.
Josh Gad stars as the friendless stiff, betrothed to a beautiful non-entity embodied by Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting. (Her role's about three basements below thankless.) Gad's wealthy schmoe starts as the sorriest case Callahan has ever seen: He needs not just a best man, but seven groomsmen, all for a wedding coming up in a week. Cue up much amusing jabber about the rules of faking camaraderie, about the lies people tell in speeches at weddings, about how to change the subject when talking to family. Hart rattles on, part entrepreneur, part devilish huckster, part parody of Will Smith's magic Bagger Vance caddie. He's not teaching Gad's groom how to love or live or anything — if anything, the two men slowly teach that to each other.
Gad's funny and dignified, despite a pre-credits gag about him being so fat he shatters the desk he sits on. He and Hart get run through the bromance paces with fewer of the no-homo! hangups than you might expect. An extended sequence of them dancing at a practice wedding they've crashed is a highlight, as full of grace as laughs, big ol' Gad leading bite-sized Hart. The script, by director Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender, upends some stereotypes, and lets Gad's character be a dance floor dynamo. Less appealingly, the writers try to get away with some dimwitted gay jokes — and then trapdoor out of the responsibility of having thrown them in. An old man calls wedding prep “gay!” early on, but he's later proven to be a horrible person. More miserable than that is the swishy wedding planner who, of course, turns out not to be so swishy after all — like Callahan, he's playing a part, but his real self, beneath the mincing, is every bit a stereotype, too. Almost as miserable: time-killing, mood-shattering sequences involving a police chase and a muddy, brawling football game against Joe Namath and other old-timers.
Still, the groom's dumb lies to his fiancée afford Hart's wedding ringer some wonderful moments, my favorite being his bursts of fury upon discovering he'll have to pretend to be a man named Bic Mitchum, a priest no less. Hart rants, Gad fidgets, and together this pair barrels through the plot, shaping between them a surprisingly potent friendship. On top of everything else, Hart knows how to share the screen. This March he's paired up with Ferrell, a great opportunity and an even greater challenge — can he summon up such a satisfying connection with a partner who has no interest in coherence? An even better question: Does Hart really need to be in a Ferrell movie, or is Ferrell buying himself a ringer?