Comedy is always about the underdog, and there is nobody better at losing right now than Kevin Hart.
Diminutive and sputteringly brilliant, he’s mad as hell about becoming the butt of his own jokes. The genius of the act is that he just can’t help it. Hart curses and swears up and down while jumping and jiving, always almost getting the upper hand, but in the end, he’s the punchline. I love the man for this. He’s vulnerable. He’s fallible. He sucks. He’s one of us.
Philly’s pride spent a distasteful amount of his last standup movie, 2011’s Laugh at My Pain, buying his devoted fans cheesesteaks for the cameras. See, that’s the strange thing with Hart: He’s only the seventh standup comic ever to sell out Madison Square Garden. Among the others are Carlin, Eddie, Dice, Rock—all on a single-name-recognition basis with the public. But Hart is still a fairly well-kept secret.
Pop culture has become so stratified and segregated, the financial success of Think Like a Man by all rights should have put him on the cover of every magazine in town, but instead, I had to waste half an hour before this week’s screening explaining to my elderly betters who the hell Kevin Hart even is, as none of his movies have ever screened for us critics before.
I get the feeling he’d prefer it that way. Hart’s working his own thing, with his own self-financed projects doing so well, he doesn’t need us establishment motherfuckers chiming in. But at the same time, there’s something weirdly defensive about Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain way before we get to the MSG standup show.
As I learned from Katy Perry: Part of Me, every concert film now must begin with a 30-minute infomercial selling you on the movie you already paid to see in the first place. Hart handles this better than most, with a Tim Story-directed prologue in which his guests turn on him at his own house party. (The moral is that Kevin Hart can never win. So it’s nothing new.) But Let Me Explain continues onward for a bit with an awkward, off-putting slapdash documentary collection of man-on-the-street interviews letting us know that Hart is a huge deal in Oslo. (“Soul Plane?” a bystander bellows.) Do we really need a graphic of your Twitter feed? Richard Pryor just walked onstage and didn’t have all this bullshit warmup; that’s just where the movies started—Rich told jokes. Why we gotta go through Twitter?
It gets better. Once Hart finally takes the stage, the movie kicks over to a whole different time signature, and now, he’s in charge. Laughingly declaring that he stole his whole set design from Kanye and Jay-Z, there are pillars of fire positioned all over the stage, belching flames as an openly-admitted last resort whenever a gag doesn’t work. It’s a huge setup, and he is a tiny little man.
It’s impossible not to love Hart for this very reason. He’s a dwarf who hangs out with professional basketball players—the class clown made good who still can’t keep up with the jocks. But Hart’s Laugh at My Pain was so searingly, darkly personal—dealing with a dad on drugs and his mother’s funeral—there probably was nowhere else to go.
Let Me Explain is much easier to take, riffing on being divorced and famous. You won’t see any of the stock characters again, but I think his dumb best friend, Harry, who always answers wrong, just passed the audition for future bits.
Hart still has an edge, talking about how he’s taking martial arts classes because “my daughter has a stepdad now, and I know I’ll probably have to go fuck him up someday.” Lines are crossed, particularly when he gives a lesson on how to react when you get caught cheating. (“Are you finished?”) This is the kind of stuff that will probably show up in court, eventually.
But there’s something once-removed about the material in Let Me Explain. It feels safe in ways his routines haven’t before. A final blowout about his daughter’s horseback riding lessons ends with Hart playing the fool again, accidentally dry-humping her trainer. But the show hasn’t built properly to this grand humiliation; it’s kind of just one thing after another.
Still, this film is funny as hell—and, again, let me stump for the theatrical experience. I wish more standup comedy specials played in theaters because there’s nothing more gratifying than laughing out loud with an audience, cackling and applauding together in full thrall of the moment.
I had a great night out. Unfortunately, I know Kevin Hart can do better. Maybe you don’t? That’s a point Explain wants to correct.