A few weeks ago in a passing conversation, an acquaintance noted that comedian Kevin Hart has no fewer than four movies on the docket in 2014. In response, I questioned aloud whether Hart – an undoubtedly funny performer whose screen presence belies his diminutive size (5’2 to be exact) – had the requisite chops to draw audiences to four of his movies in one calendar year.
“He’s funny and all, but I’m not sure anyone’s going to pay to see him four times in one year,” I said.
I stand corrected.
Hot on the heels of his runaway January release Ride Along, the Philadelphia-born comedian emerged as the box office runner-up of the extended President’s Day holiday weekend. About Last Night solidified the funny man’s status as an emerging big-screen powerhouse. At a minimum, Hart’s double-barreled hit builds momentum for his two remaining feature films this year, and vaults him into a rarefied air of a black comedian enjoying crossover cultural appeal.
So how exactly did Kevin Hart get here? And perhaps the more pivotal question revolves around whether his near-miraculous lucky streak can keep going.
The recent clutch of successful urban films have tilled the ground for Hart’s impressive accomplishments: the public is warming to quality black cinema, and not a moment too soon. In addition to building on the performance of his 2013 smash stand-up comedy film Laugh at My Pain, Hart also benefits from a strong box-office run for black films, which include the second installment of The Best Man, and the highly-acclaimed 12 Years as a Slave, which has big Oscar buzz building behind it.
Moreover, Hart clearly thrives when paired off with equally charismatic and established co-stars: Ice Cube is a comedy veteran in his own right, while Michael Ealy—who shared top billing with Hart in About Last Night—is no stranger to romantic comedies. The buddy comedy format plays to Hart’s skill set, but that formula can quickly wear thin (just ask Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan). Still, Hart’s kinetic style and high-pitched, nasally falsetto are strangely reminiscent of 21st-century version of Three’s Company’s immortal Jack Tripper (played to the hilt by the late John Ritter), characteristics that likely contribute to how audiences of all races identify with his antics.
Hart’s fortunes seem to be equally attributable to talent and good timing, benefiting from being in the right place at the right time. Let’s face it, Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey have lost it: both are in the throes of a career-sucking vortex at a time when Americans appear starved for a box-office-bestriding funnyman. The (eternally overrated) Ferrell seemed poised to reclaim his perch with the late December release of Anchorman 2, yet lukewarm box-office and critical reception—combined with a long-in-the-tooth central character—may have doused those ambitions permanently. On the other side of the same coin, Carrey hasn’t done anything truly noteworthy since his 2003 smash Bruce Almighty went on to gross nearly $500 million worldwide.
Enter Kevin Hart and his maniacal, laugh-inducing antics. Hart is only slightly less crass than Eddie Murphy was in his heyday, and far more charismatic than Chris Rock (whose often grating brand of laughs could sometimes seem tone deaf).
In a certain sense, Hart is picking up where other prominent black comedians left off. He’s acceding to the throne Dave Chappelle would likely have occupied had he not flamed out so spectacularly, and faltered at subsequent efforts to recover lost ground.
Yet at this point, Hart’s biggest enemy is surely the effects of overexposure. While the vertiginous downward spiral of Eddie Murphy’s career surely looms as a cautionary tale (something Hart himself addressed in a recent interview with The Grio when he professed to being unconcerned with a career slump), Jennifer Lopez’s career might be the most instructive. It’s easy to forget that barely a decade ago J.Lo was a household name, coming out of nowhere to strike gold simultaneously at the box office and the music charts. Just when she seemed unstoppable, a few career missteps combined with nonstop media coverage of her personal life snuffed out her flame. The public is fickle and fame, even in the case of a comic as talented as Hart, can be fleeting.
Expectations for Kevin Hart are running fairly high – which is always a recipe for an Icarus-like disappointment that results from flying too close to the sun. However, his success affirms an observation made recently by Jerry Seinfeld (which earned him lots of unwarranted criticism in the process). If something is funny, then audiences will respond accordingly—regardless of race or ethnicity.
Needless to say, Hart is really funny, and is reaping the well-deserved harvest that comes with that.