Movie review and analysis: Kevin Hart, “Let Me Explain”

There’s more than a little bit of myth-building going on right from the start of Kevin Hart’s newest stand-up comedy concert film.

But when you open with $17.4 million at the box office over the extended Fourth of July holiday weekend, who will argue when what’s mythic suddenly appears to be very, very real. There is no need to explain what Hart does in setting up Let Me Explainor for bankrolling the movie.

That said, Hart feels the need to fill time for several minutes before getting to the punchlines.

In 2011’s Laugh At My Pain, we’re treated to the comedian’s backstory in Philadelphia documenting the road he traveled to become an act popular enough to sell out comedy clubs, theaters and eventually arenas. Here, we’re thrust into a lengthy segment of faux-reality, a staged “mix and mingle” that’s as real as any episode from his successful BET series, Real Husbands of Hollywood, just without the laughs. Comparisons, accusations and tabloid headlines from TMZ (the paparazzi propaganda machine) pop up in “conversation” and on the screen, prompting him to jump in a limo to Madison Square Garden to explain himself.

One of Hart’s guests (friends?) at the pre-show cocktail party compares him to Eddie Murphy. Murphy was the biggest comedy star in both stand-up and movies in 1987 when he made the top-grossing concert film with Raw. Hart’s still on the upswing of his career; definitely very much so when he recorded this performance last November during the New York Comedy Festival. Before we see this performance, however, we must sit through another few minutes of montages from Hart’s global stand-up comedy tour, marking his international star status with arena shows and fan testimonials throughout Europe. A nod, too, to how many hundreds of thousands of subscribers have learned to love Hart first not in a club or arena or by watching his clips for free on YouTube. That fed their hunger to pay top dollar to see Hart perform in person.

In an arena.

But bigger isn’t necessarily better.

If anyone should know that, it’s the diminutive man with the dynamic stage presence. He nevertheless gets caught up in the mystique of Madison Square Garden; quite literally and emotionally so at the end of his performance.

MSG is just a venue. It’s an arena, 15,000 tickets in Hart’s case. In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, New York City. But it’s show business. Can you sell that many tickets? Yes? Alrighty then. But performers have a way of giving certain venues elite status — much like the melodrama that continues to circulate around who hosts The Tonight Show, there’s an everlasting allure to specific performing arts spaces in NYC, from Carnegie Hall to Radio City Music Hall to MSG.

In promoting Let Me Explain, Hart and media outlets alike have focused on how few comedians have stood up and delivered to the crowd at MSG. The number may be fewer than even Hart realizes, when you factor in which comedians recorded their albums and specials in the smaller theater space within the Garden — Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and Ricky Gervais, among them. Who has actually played to the full house? Steve Martin may have been the first, in the late 1970s; followed more than a decade later by Andrew Dice Clay; followed post-Y2K by Dane Cook and Chris Rock, and even more recently by Eddie Izzard and Russell Peters (Peters, in fact, played the new Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn the very weekend Hart recorded Let Me Explain at MSG.

The hype, the excess, the peak of one’s powers of pop-culture phenomenon — certainly Hart has found his time to shine in the stand-up spotlight now, as “Dice” and Dane once did. Excess? Hart playfully boasts he added fire to his show! “It means I’m a God damned big deal!”

And like Dane Cook before him, Hart chased dreams of TV pilots and major movie success in Hollywood while in his early 20s, only to find his popularity grow by leaps and bounds later both onstage and online. Hart, who turned 34 on July 6, has accumulated more than 7.7 million followers on Twitter (and almost as many fans on Facebook), where he reminded them multiple times a day to go see Let Me Explain on its opening weekend.

But what about the stand-up we actually see in this movie?

It’s spectacle. Is it spectacular?

“Help me, help me…nigger” might not be the catchphrase that you’ll be hearing kids of all ages repeating everywhere for the rest of 2013, thanks to other pop-culture headlines this summer. However, the routine in which he lays out the phrase, describing what it truly means to be best friends, has legs. “My bullshit is your bullshit, and your bullshit is my bullshit,” he says.

Here’s a clip from that chunk:

He also continues to explore the fallout from his divorce, in which he was caught cheating on his wife. Why cheat? Why lie? Hart cops to enjoying lying about other things, too, which makes it more difficult when he finds himself enjoying something as mundane as going for a walk and feeding pigeons.

As he explains in this clip:

Hart’s comedy often pivots on surprising self-deprecation, as his own bravado gets him into situations he cannot handle or wasn’t as ready for as he might have believed. He’s reminded of his limitations by overstepping them.

One bit you also may have seen in his Saturday Night Live monologue (which SNL shrewdly rebroadcast last weekend to coincide with his movie opening) found Hart put off-balance by a homeless person flicking his lip. And his short 51-minute set ends with a horseback-riding trip so laden with mishaps that Hart ends up sitting behind his instructor on his instructor’s horse, uncontrollably bouncing and thrusting.

Hart does afford himself one additional minute as an encore to soak it all in, the full extent of his success onstage, and he catches his emotions before announcing: “This is a fucking dream come true!” “Thank you for being loyal to me.”

At the screening I attended (Let Me Explain cornered at least four screens at AMC Empire 25 in Times Square last weekend), the audience laughed and cheered as much if not more for something Hart did in a scene with Ice Cube from the trailer for Ride Along — one of several big-budget movies Hart will star or co-star in over the coming 12 months.

Prolific? Heck, this is the comedian’s fourth hour of stand-up recorded on film in the past five years. Hart released I’m A Grown Little Man in 2009, followed by Seriously Funny in 2010 (filmed in Cleveland with LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal shown in the audience, and LeBron jumping out of his seat during one of Hart’s act-outs mocking Shaq), then Laugh at My Pain two years ago on the big screen; now, Let Me Explain.

The reviews from the mainstream media — roundup via Fandango — might not find themselves clipped and posted on Hart’s refrigerator door. Several reviews have found this film to be too short or skimpy in terms of the actual stand-up to win over new fans. But Hart has millions of fans already, and all he needed to do was convince enough of them to pay upward of $15 for a movie ticket. By that measure, he’s a show-business success story.

Let Me Explain is the sixth-biggest grosser of all time among stand-up comedy concert films. Murphy’s aforementioned Raw may never be beat, especially when factoring in inflation and ticket prices. The other top banana for comparison’s sake would be Richard Pryor, but Hart’s offstage dramas haven’t offered nearly as much fodder for onstage revelation just yet. Hart may be a bigger movie star than Chris Rock, but Rock remains in a different league of respect for his onstage craft. Perhaps Hart now is most like Martin Lawrence  then. Lawrence also achieved two hit stand-up movies in You So Crazy (1994) and Runteldat (2002).

Times have changed how stand-up comedians achieve success so much in just that short of a period, though.

It’s more than a little bit heartening, then, in an era in which stars are asking their fans to kick in millions of dollars via Kickstarter to fund future productions, to see Hart put his own millions where his fast-talking mouth was with Hartbeat Productions to make Let Me Explain, and then to see him reap the rewards from it.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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