It’s been a while since there’s been a truly great stand-up concert film. Sure, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and Hannibal Buress have all served up laugh-riot sets on cable. But when it comes to actually digging into your wallet to cough up ten bucks to see a comic do his or her thing really well at the multiplex, you have to go back to Eddie Murphy’s 1987 phenomenon, Raw.
That presents a lot of pressure for Kevin Hart — but also a huge opportunity. Despite a guest-hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, a slew of TV shows and movies on his résumé (including last year’s box office hit, Think Like a Man), and viral Internet fame, the 33-year-old comedian isn’t quite a household name yet. So it seems a little weird that the slightly annoying and too-long prologue to his new concert film, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, spends so much time riffing on how the haters have taken aim at his fame, complaining how he no longer dates dark-skinned African-American women, how Soul Plane bombed, and how he isn’t a star abroad. These beefs might be old news to Hart’s fans, but they’ll elicit shrugs from casual viewers.
But when Hart takes the stage, everything changes. He comes alive. Performing in front of a sold-out audience at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Hart launches into a rat-a-tat set of hilariously hyperactive anecdotes designed to explain how he’s the same guy he’s always been…kind of. Dressed completely in black, save for a thick gold chain, Hart has decked out the stage with rising jets of fire. He explains that he got the idea after seeing Jay-Z and Kanye West use the same pyrotechnic device in their shows so he wanted to have some ”pointless fire” too. Whenever he nails a particularly explosive punchline, he fires the jets like a rim shot.
Hart’s style is that of the flustered, misunderstood guy. He moves around on stage like a jumping bean and gets apoplectic while unspooling stories about his recent divorce and getting caught in the lies he tells. Hart isn’t your typical Caroline’s comedian who delivers a set-up followed by a punchline. He tells elliptical stories that go on so long and take so many weird detours that they end up being funny even when they shouldn’t be. His anecdote about taking ecstasy, which convinced him he was a drug dealer and eventually made him get sexy with a bean-bag chair is dynamite.
Best of all is his riff on being a scaredy cat, running through his inept bodyguards and revealing the one thing that frightens him the most: the dirty hands of street bums. He’s terrified that one day one of them will touch his lips and cause him to break out into sores. Like a lot of his routine, it’s priceless and pants-wettingly funny.
Unfortunately, Hart seems to have taken the whole ”leave the audience wanting more” maxim a little too much to heart. The film clocks in at a hair over an hour. That might be enough for an HBO special, but it feels a little thin for a feature film. B+