Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Get Hard and Religious Freedom

by Matt McKenna

DownloadNobody walks into Get Hard expecting to see a good movie. Likewise, nobody turns to Indiana expecting to find examples of progressive legislation. Still, it's disappointing that Get Hard manages to be so bereft of humor, and it is disappointing that Indiana Governor Mike Pence would sign a bill so bereft of sense as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The similarities between Get Hard and Pence's signing of Indiana's RFRA don't simply end with their being sad wastes of time, however. The plot of Get Hard, as thin as it is, mirrors the buffoonery that has marked Pence's time in office during the run-up to the 2016 election, and the weakness of Get Hard's comedy mirrors the weakness in Pence's political positions.

Get Hard stars Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in a movie of which producers thought so little, they named it after the film's worst joke: a cheap double entendre that refers to both becoming emotionally tough and forming an erection. One good litmus test for whether or not you'll like this film is if you think it might be amusing to watch Ferrell and Hart repeatedly say “get hard” as if they're unaware of the sexual half of the phrase's meaning. I did not find it amusing.

The film's plot is simple: Will Ferrell's character whose name I can't remember is a Wall Street genius and a moron. Lest you think there is social commentary implied here, rest assured that there is not. Ferrell is accused of embezzling money from his clients and is subsequently tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison, a place where multiple characters in the film promise he will be raped. Of course, Ferrell didn't commit the crime of which he's accused, but instead of trying to prove his innocence during the thirty days of freedom he's afforded to put his affairs in order, he enlists Kevin Hart's character whose name I also can't remember to train him to not get raped in jail. In a twist that has implications later in the film, it so happens that Hart's character has never been to jail, but since he's black, Ferrell's character assumes he has. Another good litmus test for whether or not you'll like the movie is if you think it might be fun to watch Ferrell say racist things as if he's unaware they're racist. I did not find it fun.

Like Ferrell's character, Governor Mike Pence is also trying to “get hard” but not because he needs to toughen up to fight off rapists nor because he needs to develop an erection. Instead, in order to have a shot at running for President of the United States in 2016, Pence figures he must curry favor with the social conservatives in his party. As part of his Presidential training, Pence signed a bill that implies Indiana businesses might not have to serve LGBT people if serving LGBT people would compromise business owners' religious beliefs. Pence clearly thought the bill would do enough to placate social conservatives while being toothless enough to not draw the ire of dreaded LGBT activists. After all, how is this bill even slightly controversial? As Pence has been fond of saying since he became the focal point of the bill's backlash, there's already a federal law with language similar to the Indiana law, and nineteen other states have enacted related legislation. Where, for heavens sake, could this outrage be coming from?!

Turns out, opportunistically playing dumb is both bad comedy and bad campaigning. Just as Farrell's and Hart's jokes fall flat because their characters conveniently fluctuate between intelligent and idiotic to meet the needs of the current scene, so too does Pence's pre-Presidential campaign fall flat because his identity fluctuates between socially conservative and mainstream to meet the needs of his current audience. Therefore, when Pence says, “It is not the intent of the law to discriminate against anyone,” it's impossible to take him seriously. Of course the law wasn't meant to discriminate against anyone; it was only meant to align Pence with the members of his party who would like to discriminate against LGBT people while stopping short of the governor explicitly condoning discrimination. Just as Get Hard attempts the precarious balancing act of having its characters go in and out of idiocy with the hope that the jokes will still land, Pence attempted the precarious balancing act of appearing bigoted to his socially conservative base while simultaneously appearing relatively unbigoted to mainstream America with the hope that nobody would call him out on it.

Unfortunately for Get Hard and Governor Mike Pence, you can't have it both ways. If a character like Ferrell's is savvy enough to become partner at a Wall Street firm, he will also know what the phrase “get hard” means. Any joke based on a premise where that is not true is doomed to failure. And if you're the governor of a generally conservative state that recently avoided a controversial constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, you will mostly certainly understand what a bill like the RFRA implies. Any wide-eyed TV appearance by the governor in which he describes how shocked he is that the bill could be interpreted in such a way is insulting to citizens of both parties of his state.

Ultimately, this Religious Freedom Restoration Act itself will be a non-issue in Indiana. Even as originally written, the bill probably wouldn't have allowed businesses to legally discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. For that reason, it is understandable that conservative Hoosiers would be annoyed with liberal carpetbaggers setting their morality phasers to outraged and firing indiscriminately towards the middle of the country because there's a hypothetical situation in which maybe somebody might be discriminated against in Indiana. But the holders of this attitude suffer from the same malady that plagues Governor Mike Pence: to act as if this bill exists in isolation from the broader narrative of civil rights for LGBT Americans is the result of either willful ignorance or utter incompetence. What Get Hard lacks in laughs, Indiana's RFRA lacks in tact, and neither the film nor the bill are deserving of favorable reviews.