There’s a great scene in “Night School,” a scene so sharp and funny it’s hard for the movie to top. The film has given us the reasons that 30-something high-school dropout Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) must return to night school to get his GED. So here he is, meeting his classmates, everybody introducing themselves.
It’s a normal situation, except that with the talents of the cast involved, the session turns into a 20-minute master class in comedy. The classmates include longtime “24” co-star Mary Lynn Raskub, Rob Riggle and Al Madrigal (both “Daily Show” alumni), Romany Malco (“Weeds”), and Tiffany Haddish, who plays the class teacher.
The rapid-fire nature of the conversation, and the obvious improvisations within it, keep the scene humming with one-liners that also establish the character quirks of the people we’re going to watch for the next 90 minutes. It’s unusually long for such a sequence, but you get the feeling director Malcolm D. Lee couldn’t bear to cut even the weirder moments. He was right.
If everything in “Night School” clicked like this, we’d really have something. As it is, there are enough solid jokes, all arranged around Hart’s well-defined comic persona, to provide a pleasant trip through a formula set-up.
That formula includes the fact that Hart will get over his embarrassment at attending night school, and bond hard with his classmates. Actually, that formula is hard to resist, and it works here.
In fact, “Night School” is much better as a human comedy than it is as slapstick. Two ill-advised sequences — a night raid at the high school to steal a mid-term exam, and an unfunny bit where the teacher regularly body-slams Teddy to help him get past his dyslexia — dry up the laughter and extend the film’s longish 111 minutes.
This isn’t a great follow-up vehicle for “Girls Trip” breakout star Haddish, but she makes the most of her opportunities. There’s also a consistently funny supporting part for former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Taran Killam, as the school principal who bears a grudge against Teddy dating back to their high school days.
Hart’s shtick, in which he frequently ends up being the butt of a joke, is still strong. And as producer as well as star of this project, he also displays a willingness to let his classmates — that is, castmates — take the comic spotlight. That’s not true of every comedian who gets his moment at the box office, but it could work well for Hart’s longevity at the top.