Night School is terrible. But Tiffany Haddish is great.
Tiffany Haddish was a long-time comic and performer before last year's comedy smash Girls Trip propelled her to greater fame and even some award conversations. So it's only natural that it's taken awhile for her inevitable star vehicle to hit theaters. It's also perhaps understandable why some critics took to concern-trolling as they waited: "Tiffany Haddish deserves better," one publication declared, referring to Night School, a movie that no one had yet actually seen.
As it turns out, Haddish does deserve better than Friday's release of Night School, in large part because the movie was clearly designed to show off star Kevin Hart first and everyone else a distant second. Though the movie shares director Malcolm D. Lee and a similarly talented ensemble cast with Girls Trip , it has all the hallmarks of Hart's films: a convoluted story that goes out of its way to paint Hart as an insecure but hard-working go-getter, bad CG-augmented slapstick, pointless but plot-required deception, and unearned swells of sentimentality.
But Night School as well as Haddish's smaller-scale movie The Oath, out on Oct. 12, both offer their newly minted star something interesting to do, even when the movies themselves don't completely work. In Girls Trip, Haddish is the designated comic relief, which in a movie that's already a comedy typically means a character who is more outrageous or more shameless than the others. She's the movie's id, and many of her live TV appearances since her breakthrough have traded on the infectious joy she brings to saying (or seeming to say) whatever's on her mind. So it's a surprise to see that her new movies give her such domesticated roles: In Night School, she's a teacher of high school and adult education. In The Oath, she's a dedicated wife, mother, and voice of reason.
The most compelling aspect of Night School is its refusal to realign Haddish's persona with what looks like a more standard part: the teacher and leader for a class full of misfits studying up to take a GED test. She's more restrained than her anti-authority character in Girls Trip, but Haddish maintains her comic directness to enliven what could have been a dull straight-woman part. Look no further than her response to a query about whether she's a teacher: "No, I'm just a bitch who likes wearing blouses." Not necessarily a funny line on paper, but laugh-out-loud in her delivery.
Beyond the occasionally amusing, often tiresome Kevin Hart hustle and bustle is a neat rebuke to respectability politics: Haddish's character doesn't need to code-switch into a more "white-sounding" voice to be a smart, serious-minded teacher. This shouldn't be a revelatory message from a big-studio comedy, and Night School is plenty regressive in other ways. But Haddish brings the movie such confident energy that it limps whenever she's off screen.
The Oath gives her somewhat less to do, though it's a much smarter comedy. Ike Barinholtz, who also wrote and directed, plays a left-wing family man appalled by a presidential administration not named but clearly modeled closely after the current White House. When the president announces an "optional" patriotic loyalty oath that all citizens are strongly encouraged to sign, he clashes with his more conservative-minded family over Thanksgiving weekend, especially once members of the "CPU" (Citizen Protection Unit) turn up at his home to investigate a complaint (presumably of insufficient loyalty).
It's a strange, bold movie, this combination of dinner-table farce, satirical commentary, and The Purge, and Haddish provides a lot of necessary grounding as Barinholtz's wife, who generally agrees with him politically but finds his parents and brother far less intolerable than he does. She's involved in a twist that's both telegraphed and eventually inessential to the plot; the only reason her big moments work is the genuine emotion she brings to them. Haddish is funny in the movie, too, burning slower than usual as her frustration with her husband goes from lovingly mild to apoplectic. The movie doesn't tamp her down so much as shift the loudest outbursts to Barinholtz, making a point about the impotent fury of a man who is mostly correct but lacks any ideas about how to affect change, or even how to avoid picking unwinnable fights with his family.
The movie uses its cast well, sometimes in counterintuitive ways; Haddish's image doesn't necessarily scream happy homemaker married to annoying white dude, but as with Night School, the part stretches to accommodate her charisma and warmth. The Oath is a little scattershot and ends with a narrative cop-out, but Haddish comes out of it looking more (to borrow a favorite word of hers) ready for stardom than ever. Given the smart turns she gives both of her new roles, it's wonderfully difficult to picture her engaging in the kind of worn-out deception shenanigans Hart gets up to in Night School.
Now it's time for someone to write her a movie that knows this, instead of just stumbling into it.