Let me just rain on your parade upfront, to get it out of the way: Night School is not the big Girls Trip follow-up film for Tiffany Haddish that you might have been hoping for. Yes, this film comes from the same director (Malcolm D. Lee), and Haddish is right there on the posters next to co-star Kevin Hart. (She even gets the simple last-name billing, reserved for those whove really made it.) Yet the movie positions her as the straight woman, a reactive backboard for all of Harts caustic bouncing—and while she proves perfectly adept at that, its not the most thrilling of roles. So, revisit the swamp-tour Groupon story if you want Haddish at her best. You wont find it in Night School.
Truth is, you wont find much of anything worthwhile in Night School. With six credited writers, the film is a slapdash mess of bad seam work and hasty editing. (There are even some badly dubbed jokes, presumably to get the rating down to a PG-13.) You can tell that there was once something interesting here, a more fully rounded comedy about a scrambling liar finding a quirky community of people earnestly trying to better themselves. Whats ended up on screen, though, is awkwardly paced and, if not fuzzy in its ultimate message, garbled in its delivery. Night School has a nice sentiment to impart, but all the noise surrounding it just about drowns it out.
Hart plays Teddy Walker, another of the comedians squirming, antic men, this time a high-school dropout whos scraping by as a patio equipment salesman while presenting himself as a flashy big-shot—Porsche, fancy apartment, glinting rock of an engagement ring—to his successful, glamorous girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). But crazy circumstances conspire to see Teddy out of a job, and in desperate need of his G.E.D. to start a new career. Enter Haddish as a no-nonsense night-school teacher, plus a class of fellow misfits.
The scene in which these characters are introduced is the movie at its freewheeling best, where we see bright glimmers of the more robust comedy that could have been had worse, lazier impulses not won out. Al Madrigal, Rob Riggle, and Mary Lynn Rajskub are all amusing as goofy losers, sweet but prickling with little darknesses. (Madrigals aspiring pop star threatens to kill people more than once. Rajskubs repressed housewife expresses secret hatred for her children.) But its Romany Malco who doesnt so much walk off with this long, rambling scene as much as he briefly carries the entire movie so far afield of mediocrity that you wish the whole thing would completely shift course and focus on him.
Where has Romany Malco been recently? IMDb lists a bunch of TV credits, but nothing perhaps worthy of this quick, logorrheic actors abilities. Malco had a moment there back in the 2000s, with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Weeds arriving around the same time, when he seemed destined to be one of the next big things. Hes worked steadily since, but has not found quite the traction he deserves. So its a thrill to watch him in Night School, back in full-tilt action. His role isnt huge, but he makes the oddball most of it, particularly in that introductory scene. Theres a profane menace and an odd cuddliness to his character, Jaylen, a sorta-creep who pathologically, almost religiously fears robots and holds himself up as a king or a pharaoh. Its a welcome jolt of weirdness in a movie that feels otherwise pretty programmatic.
Beyond the flimsy boilerplate of Night Schools plot, theres the issue that Teddys whole conflict is essentially tied to the idea that its a failure of heterosexual maleness to let a woman pay. Sure, the movie addresses that as a problem with Teddys thinking, but the ideology is kinda still there in the end, lingering in the films DNA—a hoary gender conflict that this collective of filmmakers, on screen and off, is smarter than. Thats the curious, disappointing thing about Night School: it has such pedigree, yet no one (except for Malco) seems all that invested—ironic, considering this is a movie about putting in the work to achieve something good.
Its also a movie about embracing second, third, however many other chances, so long as theyre seized with earnestness and diligence. In that spirit, Id encourage this team, with maybe a couple fewer writers, to regroup and try again. Give Haddish more to do; get Hart to play some chords that are a little less familiar; keep Malco doing exactly what hes doing; and maybe eschew some of the ickier sexual politics. (Prison-rape jokes, in 2018? Come on, folks.) Because there is abundant potential here. Consider Night School the practice test—one that pretty much everyone bombed.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:If You Love Old Hollywood Gossip, Put These Books, Films, and Podcasts on Your List
You Must Remember This
Karina Longworths must-listen podcast is a treasure trove of forgotten and secret stories from Hollywoods early decades. In its latest season, Longworth explores Hollywood Babylon, experimental filmmaker Kenneth Angers 1959 book that purportedly had all the juiciest gossip of Hollywoods golden age. In the series, Longworth dives right into the rumors, sussing out Angers wildest stories about figures like Fatty Arbuckle and silent-film star Olive Thomas.Photo: Photograph by Emily Perl. Courtesy of Panoply (cover art).
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
In the upcoming documentary, which opens in New York on August 3, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer tells the story of Scotty Bowers, a Hollywood pimp who claims he set up old Hollywoods closeted stars with private trysts. His claims are grand and sexy. From Spencer Tracy to Katharine Hepburn to Cary Grant, theres no limit to the stars Scotty alleges he worked with. (Photo: Left, Scotty and friends; Right, Scotty in uniform.)Photo: Photos courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.
Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood
In this 2005 book, author Donald Bogle dives into the history and lore of famous black actors in Hollywoods earliest decades, from Stepin Fetchit to Dorothy Dandridge. Bogle traces what it was really like being a black star at the time, shedding light on the rise of figures like Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr.Photo: Courtesy of One World.
Bring on the Empty Horses
In 1975, Oscar-winning actor David Niven released this book, a collection of his favorite star-studded run-ins in his years in the business. There are detailed passages of his friendships with Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, charming and thrilling anecdotes of his lengthy career and personal life.Photo: Courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton.
Tab Hunter Confidential
In his autobiography (later made into a documentary, available on Netflix), actor Tab Hunter spoke freely about his acting and singing career, which began in the 1950s. The actor also shed light on his personal life, revealing his relationships with men like Pyscho star Anthony Perkins and ice-skater Ronnie Robertson. He also dished on what it was like working with studio heads like Jack Warner and getting set up on publicity tours with actresses like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. (Photo: Tab Hunter photographed in an LA court during the trial of Confidential magazine in August 1957.)Photo: From Everett Collection.
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
This 2014 book by William Mann is a nifty crossover for old Hollywood and true-crime fans, a deep dive on the 1922 murder of noted director William Desmond Taylor. Tinseltown also folds in rumors and figures of the era, making special note of power players like Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor (whose nickname was simply “Creepy”) and many, many others.Photo: Courtesy of Harper Paperbacks.
The Sewing Circle
Hollywood is the sort of place where actors can win awards for playing members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, but openly gay actors risk possibly being thrust out of the business. Actors largely kept their mouths shut about their sexuality in the days of Old Hollywood, leaving a few clues to history as to how they might have truly identified. In the 1995 book The Sewing Circle, author Axel Madsen writes about the rumored bisexual or lesbian actresses in the industry, from Garbo to Crawford, detailing how they navigated their private lives away from the public eye. The books title is the nickname for the industrys closeted community. (Photo: Greta Garbo in the 1931 film Susan Lenox- Her Fall and Rise.)Photo: BettmannPreviousNext
Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is the chief critic for Vanity Fair, reviewing film, television, and theatre. He lives in New York City.