Night School is a perfect example of a movie being better than it has any right to be. I say this, not to be condescending but because it is a shabbily put together movie. Malcolm D. Lee, the director, clearly has something to say; though he’s lucky he has Tiffany Haddish.
Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) dropped out of high school and never looked back. Now a successful salesman at a barbecue grill store, he’s living the high life. Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Teddy’s girlfriend, is a successful interior decorator who Teddy is constantly trying to dazzle with expensive gifts, fancy cars, and picking up the check. Teddy’s life, to quote his best friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), “is a financial house of cards.”
Teddy is convinced he is dating above his league. Lisa doesn’t know Teddy is putting himself into bankruptcy, nor does she know Teddy is a high school dropout. In love but deeply insecure, Teddy is a man on the verge of financial and emotional collapse. One day his manager promises to leave the store to Teddy after he retires. Suddenly all his dreams seem within reach.
Teddy decides to ask Lisa to marry him. Things go sideways when he blows up the store by accident just seconds after getting Lisa to say yes. His boss takes the insurance money and flees and now Teddy is left jobless with a rising mountain of debt.
Marvin is a successful financial adviser and tells Teddy if had his G.E.D. he would hire him on the spot. Now the plot wheels begin to grind into motion as Teddy must go back to the very school he left. He plans on fast-talking the principal out of having to actually take the class. But the principal is the kid Teddy used to pick on, Stewart (Taran Killam).
For most of the movie Night School is a part of that all the too common class of movie known as “tediously entertaining”. But Lee has a couple of aces up his sleeve in Tiffany Haddish and the underlying story of the script. Haddish’s Carrie is the brash, tough-talking teacher with a heart of gold.
“I teach math, AP English, and about three other courses, not including this one. But I have rent and I like eating, so I’m teaching this class as well.” Through much of Night School scenes almost bubble with anger. Carrie is a teacher who loves her job but wishes she had more time to do it better.
The script for Night School, which is threatening to hit a record for closest to a ball team, has six credited writers. If you watch Night School that fact becomes glaringly obvious. Yet the edges of the movie are laced with pointed barbs at how the education system is failing both the kids and the students. The story may not be cohesive in the strictest sense. But both Lee and his writers, have a palpable anger aimed at the system’s failures.
Take the cavalcade of characters that populate Teddy’s night school class. Mackenzie (Rob Riggle) is the class idiot. Jaylen (Romany Malco) is the class conspiracy theorist. Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is a stay at home Mom who doesn’t want to stay at home anymore. Mila (Anne Winters), expelled because of drugs, is taking the class so her parents won’t kick her out. Bobby (Fat Joe) is an inmate at the local prison taking the class via Skype. And then there’s Luis (Al Madrigal) a waiter Teddy got fired. He came to America with dreams of being a pop star but now would be happy being a dental hygienist.
On the surface, these are exaggerated characters more at home in a comedic sketch than a movie. But if you listen you’ll hear the small inspired genius of Night School. Mackenzie confesses early on to the class, “I’m a mover for He-Man Movers. My back is about to give out and my knees are shot. If I lift one more box my body’s probably going to collapse. My only hope of making manager is getting my G.E.D.”
Lee and his small army of writers are never cruel to these characters. The characters have a certain dignity to them. They desire to want to better themselves. The crushing economic circumstances they face in their day to day life brings a certain dimension to the characters other comedies would have ignored.
Other movies would have brushed over Mila’s sudden realization that she wants to go to college. Or that Theresa really isn’t that happy with her life and doesn’t enjoy being a mother as much as she claims. Whatever Lee may lack as a visual director he knows how to get the best out of his performers. If not for its actors Night School would have all the buoyancy of lead.
In the center of it all is Teddy. Teddy, the jerk who proclaims, “I’m not like the rest of these guys. I’ve got plans.” In addition to the litany of responsibilities Carrie has as a teacher, she is also the Special Education teacher. Carrie recognizes that part of Teddy’s brashness and his braggadocio behavior are attempts at overcompensation.
Teddy has dyslexia, dyscalculia, and a processing disorder. It’s a heck of a thing for a teacher to take an interest in a student and try to see why they seem to be having trouble. A fact that moves Teddy and stuns him at the same time.
Haddish and Hart have a unique chemistry together. Though Lee has the annoying habit of hardly ever putting them in the same shot. Somehow though, they find the humor in little things such as trying to get the last word in. Haddish, in particular, creates, despite the scripts best efforts, an almost whole character. She has desires, flaws, and motivations. Somehow Haddish’s Carrie comes out of this fractured mess whole and complete.
Night School is a wildly imperfect movie. It’s a mess from the top down. At one point Teddy and the other students sneak into the school to steal the practice midterm. We spend an inordinate amount of time watching them fumble a very simple covert operation for no real reason. After they succeed Stewart throws the school in lockdown. We are then forced to sit through a protracted scene where they have to jump from roof to roof.
Mackenzie misses the jump, falls, bounces off a rail, and lands, with his arm clearly dislocated. The scene goes on and on. Then it inexplicably cuts to the next day. It’s implied they weren’t caught but we never see or understand how. Mackenzie is seen, his arm fine as if nothing has happened. The whole thing lasts somewhere between ten to fifteen minutes has a character severely injured, and none of it matters.
Oh sure, Carrie realizes they cheated on the test. Teddy fesses up and Carrie kicks him out of the class. This leads him to beg Carrie for help and the discovery of his learning abilities. Night School knows what it wants to do but doesn’t seem to know how it wants to do it or how to get there in a timely fashion.
At one point Carrie tells Teddy she’s gay. What should have been a moment of representation instead comes off as a clumsy plot device—an excuse for why Carrie and Teddy will not end up together. Unnecessary, because despite Hart and Haddish’s chemistry, it was never a romantic one. Insult to injury Carrie is never given any kind of romantic subplot of her own or does her sexuality ever rate a mention for the rest of the movie.
Night School overcomes its shortcoming because of the actors and Lee’s unwavering trust in them. The characters are played big but never too big so they become unrecognizable. The film is edited in a way where you can clearly see one shot was shot at a different time than the one preceding it. Yet somehow it all comes together by the end. If it feels like I’m going back and forth on Night School it’s because I am.
I work at a movie theater, and like all theaters, we have regulars. One of my favorites is a kindly old man, we call Smiley. I asked Smiley what he thought and his answer was just about the perfect: “It’s a two-star movie, but it has heart and something to say. I believe the director was inspired, and I hope Miss Haddish gets more work.” Sometimes it’s shameful how good other people are at my job.