“Irresponsible,” Reviewed: Kevin Hart’s Family Values
It is a measure of Kevin Hart’s deep popularity that his new Netflix comedy special, “Irresponsible,” has barely rippled water-cooler conversations. Given the events of this past winter, when Hart cast himself as the chief antagonist in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s dilemma over who would host the Oscars, one might have expected it to cause an indelicate splash. In December, the Academy invited Hart to host, and he accepted. Soon after the announcement, old homophobic tweets of Hart’s surfaced. The Academy reportedly asked Hart to apologize, in exchange for keeping his post, but he initially refused, saying, in an Instagram video, “I’m not going to continue to go back and tap into the days of old, when I’ve moved on and I’m in a completely different space in my life.” Although Hart did eventually issue a boilerplate statement of regret, he also embarked on a defensive media campaign. Snug on Ellen DeGeneres’s couch, he complained about his critics, calling them “trolls.” Did he have no awareness of how self-pitying he sounded?
If Hart’s handling of the controversy seemed incomprehensibly idiotic to you, then “Irresponsible,” which was recorded several months prior, will seem to carry an accidental prescience.The special is entirely autobiographical, covering Hart’s second marriage, his older children’s preteen outbursts, and the foreign embarrassments of the super-rich. But much of Hart’s self-exposure in “Irresponsible” seems more like gossip management than authentic self-probing. “Lesson No. 1 that I learned is that whatever happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas,” Hart says, shoulders collapsing in a hangdog pose. Like many other famous comedians before him, Hart has been a bad husband. Two years ago, while his second wife, Eniko Hart, was pregnant with their first child, Hart was caught up in an extortion scandal, in which an associate allegedly threatened to release a video of Hart cheating on his wife. Hart apologized publicly (and, presumably, privately) to Eniko, whom he has nicknamed his “rib”—as in Adam and Eve—but he was emphatic that the blackmailing had caused just as much harm as his indiscretions. If Hart has practiced soul-searching since then, he doesn’t show it. In “Irresponsible,” he instead directs the haranguing outward, toward the chorus of haters. Caught between the self-deprecating demands of comedy and the untouchable remove of the leading man, he tips toward the latter. “Nobody plans to fuck up,” he says, in a chastising tone. “That’s why it’s called a fuckup.”
His favorite means of punctuation is to grunt, and, though his arms cross and his legs stomp, Hart’s most violent physical move is the furrowing of his brow. Where does his chip-on-the-shoulder obstinance come from? His career began, in the early two-thousands, on amateur circuits, where he served as a battery-packed opener to bigger, and more constitutionally relaxed, comedians. In films like Jessy Terrero’s “Soul Plane” and Paul Weitz’s “Little Fockers,” Hart played a punch-line jester—a male nurse, not a doctor. Hart is five feet four and regularly made a gag of his petite frame. His willingness to embrace a comedy of whiny masculinity and Napoleon complexes propelled him to major success; he has since made odd-couple capers and slightly edgy comedies. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” from 2017, in which he played the zoologist Franklin (Mouse) Finbar to Dwayne Johnson’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone, generated nearly a billion dollars.
In his standup, Hart is sterner than he is on the big screen. A premature old head, he sermonizes at every passing cloud, embracing the role of an emotionally repressed, disciplinarian dad. “What I did tell you guys? I don’t like to talk,” he reminds the audience, at one point in “Irresponsible,” when the subject of fidelity arises. Sweat streams down his temple as he narrates, with mock horror, the discovery that his wife watches porn. “My pride wanted to know what she was watching,” Hart says. The basic joke could have blossomed into an inquiry on the sexual urges of women, or perhaps into his powerful curiosity about what excites them. But Hart motors past subtlety, resorting to predictable dick-swinging.
Hart is no great social critic, but he does have a gift for needling celebrity fragility and black male vanity. On the critically underrated BET show “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” which aired between 2013 and 2016, and which Hart co-wrote, he played a viciously self-parodying version of himself. A sendup of Bravo reality T.V., with a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” tinge, the show presented Hart as a grumpy Hollywood success, miserable as he struggled to keep up with the Joneses. He’d debase himself to go to an N.B.A. All-Star-weekend party. In the years since the show ended, Hart has entered the élite and seemingly lost some of his acid ability to laugh at himself. In “Irresponsible,” he speaks in underdog mantras. “Don’t run away from your bullshit. Embrace it and become better,” he tells the audience. It’s unclear whether these are the words of someone who knows he’s done wrong and needs to fix it or of a conspiracy theorist privately convinced that the haters have singled him out.
During the Oscars saga, Hart worked hard to dispel the impression that his goofy dad-joking disguised bigotries. He was a family-values spokesman, he reminded us, a positivity spreader who’d made a video game modelled after his own handsome nuclear family. “Irresponsible,” arriving to us on a seven-month lag, is like a truth serum. What was most disturbing in Hart’s homophobic tweets was the way that he talked about his own son: “Yo if my son comes home and try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay.’ ” My colleague Michael Schulman wrote, at the time, about the particular damage that parents’ fear of gayness causes, with its suggestion “that love is contingent upon fear.” Now there is a thread from “Irresponsible,” sent from the past, to reawaken our unease. In one bit, Hart tells a story (presumably exaggerated) about deciding to take his son’s phone away as a punishment, and mimes grabbing the boy by the neck. The gesture alludes to “The Simpsons”—he is Homer and his son is Bart, but it’s unclear if Hart is endorsing oafish conservatism or young rebellion. He doesn’t seem to know that even Homer doesn’t strangle Bart anymore.