Etan Cohen’s 2015 film Get Hard, attempts to utilize the buddy comedy as a tool to shine a light on class and race relations. In this respect, it doesn’t completely fail (though it may lose its footing along the way). With Kevin Hart’s sympathetic Darnell as the co-lead, protagonist James King’s (Will Ferrell) casual racism and white privilege does come off somewhat comically. Because we know Darnell is a caring father and husband, as well as an ambitious businessman, we can laugh when James ignorantly attaches stereotypes to him. The juxtaposition of those stereotypes to Darnell, as well as James complete obliviousness, is what we can find comical. Especially since James doesn’t get away with it; Darnell is there to put him in his place or shake a finger at his well-meaning-but-offensive ignorance of racism and black culture. We’re laughing at King instead of with him.
However, this set-up is not consistent in the humor derived from homophobia and gay panic. There is no sympathetic stereotype-defying gay character to roll his eyes at James. In fact, both James and Darnell engage in anxious behavior when confronted with anything that could be considered homoerotic or sensual.
Will Ferrell tried to defend the film’s humor by stating:
“We’re playing fictitious characters who are articulating some of the attitudes and misconceptions that already exist.”
When the film premiered at SXSW, director Etan Cohen responded to criticism by stating that the film is meant to be satirical; that Darnell and James’ homophobic behavior is the joke, rather than homosexuality itself.
That brings up an interesting question. Can homophobia be funny? And if so, how does successful satire of homophobia compare to Get Hard?
I tried to find examples of comedy that successfully satirize homophobia:
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno (2009), a mockumentary that features real-life interactions with Americans uses homophobia as its crux, sets up non-actors to engage in self-revealing humor. He focuses on how people react to Brüno expressing an interest in men, rather than poking fun of Brüno himself. In the clip above (which features unknowing participates who showed up to a wrestling match being promised “Hot Chicks, $1 Beer, and Hardcore fights”), it’s clear that Baron Cohen is poking fun at toxic masculinity. The close up shots of men cheering for “Straight Dave”, viciously egging him on to “beat this fag’s ass”, and even an audience member with a shirt that says “my asshole’s just for shitting” are unflattering, and makes a clear a statement about how accepted these people find violence between men, but how disgusted they are when confronted with love and sensuality between two men.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
The long-running FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia also utilizes homophobia as a comedic device. A running gag throughout the show is that one of the main characters, Mac, is an outspoken homophobic Catholic unaware of his own homosexuality (to the annoyance of his friends).
The tone of the show is also important for context; the series is built on satire, with the main characters all unbearably unlikeable to an extreme degree.
In the 11th season’s penultimate episode, The Gang Goes to Hell, Mac is horrified to discover a same-sex married couple on the Christian cruise he’s attending, and makes it his mission to show them “God’s way”. Mac is clearly the butt of the joke when the episode pits his obsessive delusions against a reasonable and logical married couple who call him out on his offensiveness. In addition, it points out the faulty logic in conversion therapy by exposing the double standard and utilizing it for comedy. We’re laughing at Mac’s ridiculousness and how easily his behavior can be swayed, rather than relying on “gross out” humor with homosexuality at its focus.
So now let’s compare this with Get Hard.
The film focuses on James King trying to prepare for his sentence at San Quentin State Prison. On the list of things he has to train for? Prison rape.
You could argue that there’s already an issue with making light of such a significant problem in the prison system, but Cohen takes it a step further by having King “prepare” for his imminent rape when Darnell takes him to a gay bar in West Hollywood. Of course, this implies a very blurry line between a consensual same sex relationship, and male-on-male sexual violence.
The mise-en-scéne is not only full of stereotypes, but is framed like some sort of shark tank; our protagonists might as well be looking over their shoulders as if one of the “scary homosexuals” is about to pounce them for sex.
The scene is shot with our protagonists in the center. From both the angle shown above, and in the over-the-shoulder coverage, a sea lecherous and effeminate white men surround our main characters. This framing creates a certain perspective for the viewer, forcing them into an “us/them” dynamic.
The dialog doesn’t do much justice either. To teach James how to “suck dick”, Darnell acts as though all the gay men having brunch are there for sex.
The following scene is cross-cut between Darnell and James; James pursues the man from the bar as Darnell is approached by a gay man. Each express an anxiety that isn’t combated by the character they’re interacting with (or the director for that matter). This is what makes it more a joke about homosexuality than homophobia.
The “blowjob” scene is filmed like a typical “gross out” humor bit. The tip of the man’s (soft) penis peeks slightly into frame like an awaiting monster too scary to show in full. With the main focus on James, we’re meant to grimace and cringe as he inches closer to the penis. The music picks up in order to invoke suspense, he moves closer and closer in slow motion. It’s as if we’re meant to grip onto our seats, watching through our cringes: Is he really going to do it? With these editing tactics, the director aligns us with James, identifying the penis of another man as something so disgusting he can’t even look at it or say the word “dick”.
While obviously no one would realistically want to be forced into a sexual act, the fact that the scene meant to be comedic and “gross” is what makes it offensive. Imagine, would it be filmed any differently if Ferrell’s character had eat or touch something like vomit or feces?
Meanwhile, this scene is cross-cut as Darnell faces an “ambush”; a friendly gay man (Chris) who finds him attractive and wants to sit with him. Something so innocent is played off as panic-inducing, with the “humor” coming from the fact that Chris won’t take no for an answer, rather than Darnell’s blatant overeating to his come-on.
By editing these two scenes together, Coen gives the effect that our protagonist’s are both facing a similar challenge that they can’t overcome by themselves. These gay men aren’t fleshed out characters that serve to teach them a lesson; they’re simply obstacles for them to overcome.
While these scenes could be justified by serving as a beginning point for a character arc that develops into understanding and accepting male/male affection (sexual or not), it doesn’t. An example of this done right is the (also controversial) 2007 film, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (a film about two straight men who have to marry each other for benefits). At the beginning, the straight characters (Adam Sandler and Kevin James) are enablers of casual homophobia. However, when they pretend to be gay they are, for the first time, faced with real homophobia, forcing them to have their ignorances challenged.
Get Hard does quite the opposite. The character’s homophobia is not exploited for satire like in Brüno. The gay characters don’t rationalize with them or teach them a lesson like in It’s Always Sunny. And there’s nothing that forces James or Darnell to reflect on their own prejudices like in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Nothing challenges these character’s fear of male intimacy. Even by the time they’re friends, Darnell freaks out when James tries to hold his hand. There’s two scenes where Darnell tries to show affection towards James with a hug, and both times the moment is interrupted by Darnell accidentally touching something that was in James’ ass, resulting in disgust. Ironic or symbolic?
While it’s not at the core of the entire film, Get Hard portrays same-sex affection as something either gross or non-consensual. It doesn’t allow a hug or comfort between men go uninterrupted, which is shameful, considering that at its crux, it is about a caring relationship between two men.
Brüno. Dir. Larry Charles. Perf. Sacha Baron Cohen. Universal Studios, 2009.
Get Hard. Dir. Etan Cohen. Perf. Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Dir. Dennis Dugan. Perf. Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Universal Studios, 2007.
Matthews, Toni. “‘Get Hard’ A Racist, Homophobic Mess? Kevin Hart And Will Ferrell Respond.” The Inquisitr News. The Inquisitr News, 28 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
McElhenney, Rob, prod. “The Gang Goes to Hell.” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. FX. 2 Mar. 2016. Television.