SXSW: If 'Get Hard' Offends, It's Doing It Right, Says Writer-Director

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Etan Cohen

Racial stereotypes, prison rape and gay sex: It's all fodder for humor when there's an underlying message, according to Etan Cohen.

It was the rare moment of audience antipathy at the cinematic lovefest known as South by Southwest. After the premiere of Get Hard, a new Warner Bros. comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, a man asked the film's soft-spoken director, Etan Cohen, if he had been nervous to screen his "racist as f—" film to the public for the very first time.

Cohen maintained composure and offered a thoughtful, if somewhat canned, response: "The truth was that this was a really delicate balance. We wanted to think about stereotypes but not go too far."

This certainly wasn't the first time Cohen had been told that his comedy offends, and, judging from the vitriolic critical response to Get Hard thus far, it won't be the last. This is, after all, the same man who wrote Tropic Thunder — a film in which Robert Downey Jr. donned blackface and Tom Cruise was transformed via prosthetics and copious amounts of synthetic body hair into Les Grossman, a movie-producer character who many said traded in anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The 41-year-old Cohen, who was born in Israel to an Orthodox Jewish family, set out to push some of those same racial buttons with Get Hard. In the movie, Ferrell plays James King, a fabulously wealthy hedge-fund manager sentenced to a decade in San Quentin, who turns to his one black acquaintance — a car-wash worker named Darnell Lewis (Hart) — to toughen him up. Darnell is a marshmallow to the core, but seeing a potential income stream, he plays along.

The race and prison-rape jokes fly fast and furious, made somehow more palatable by Ferrell's patented brand of buffoonery: It's he who is the butt of every gag (particularly when he literally is hiding shivs up his own). Yet that can't undercut the fact that — Hart's charming nuclear family notwithstanding — the vast majority of African-American characters in the film are depicted as violent gang members who spend their days polishing hand guns and getting wasted on "gin and juice."

A red-band trailer for Get Hard released two weeks ago bombastically proclaimed that the film's odd-couple protagonists "will finally bring America together." Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter several days ahead of the film's premiere, the writer-director conceded the sentiment is "ambitious" but nevertheless a genuine one.

"We sincerely hope that it will start conversations with people," said Cohen. He added that he was encouraged by a round of test screenings in Los Angeles, as the country sat glued to the TV, watching the unrest unfolding in Ferguson, Mo.

"People were definitely more uptight at the beginning of the movie," he said. "We were making very provocative jokes, and they were not sure where we were coming from. But when they saw that the comedy was at Will’s expense, it was one of the best audiences we’ve ever had."

Cohen — who co-wrote the Get Hard script with Key & Peele writers Jay Martel and Ian Roberts (both white) — said he's been fielding complaints about the film's offensiveness since the first trailer debuted last December. He sees the friction as a positive thing. "I think that's part of getting people to think," he said, pointing to socially relevant topics like income inequality, which the script lampoons through Ferrell's utter obliviousness. "People who grow up in a bubble of wealth don't understand the problems that everyone one else deals with," said Cohen.

Potentially more troublesome, however, is the way the film deals with prison rape, as well as consensual sex between men — two unrelated topics that the film dangerously conflates.

This happens when Ferrell's character is brought to a gay restaurant and then attempts to perform oral sex on a man (Veep's Matt Walsh) in a bathroom stall. Why? To ready him for the sex acts he'll be required to perform while on lockdown. The scene contains visible flashes of a penis, presumably there to raise the stakes and draw the loudest-possible squeals of disgust from the film's target audience. As this is happening, a man who can be only described as creepy tries to pick up Hart, who quickly shuts him down.

For Cohen, getting away with that kind of humor comes down to context: "It’s a very fine line between satirizing and turning into what you’re satirizing," he said. "The intention here is Kevin is training Will, but he has no idea what he’s doing. He watched Oz like the rest of us. So basically his go-to is to scare him about all of this stuff."

"But at the same time," added Cohen, "prison rape is real. It’s still a huge issue. I don’t mind having people think about those things as well."