The stand-up concert film was once a viable genre. Richard Pryor's concert films are rightly considered classics; same goes for Bill Cosby: Himself. Even Andrew "Dice" Clay released a live concert movie at the height of his popularity. Somewhere along the way, though, the genre fell out of fashion; though a few have been released in the last two decades (including two from Martin Lawrence and The Original Kings of Comedy), it hasn't been since Eddie Murphy: Raw was released in 1987 that a stand-up concert movie really felt like an event. Louis C.K.'s latest special, Hilarious, was designed as a concert movie, but ended up receiving what amounted to a single-night showing after making its debut at Sundance. Whether its the proliferation of Comedy Central, which airs one or more new stand-up specials every single weekend, or the presence of new media (including the internet, DVD and streaming services like Netflix), the stand-up concert film feels like a relic from a bygone era.
Credit to comedian Kevin Hart, then, for making a valiant effort to bring the genre back with Laugh at My Pain, his very first stand-up film and the first live concert film to receive a wide theatrical release since Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat in 2002. It is, for the most part, a very funny movie, with an hour of solid laughs that finds Hart looking incredibly confident and polished. This is his moment, and he's not going to blow the opportunity.
Laugh at My Pain opens with a 15 introduction, shot documentary style, in which Hart appears on camera and in voiceover and gives some background on the tour and the concert to be filmed for the movie. A camera crew follows him around his home town of Philadelphia, as he visits family, his high school and fans at several of his old haunts. A few other comics and friends are interviewed to discuss Hart's beginnings as a stand-up, and while some of the background is interesting (as are a few of Hart's dealings with strangers, because he uses it as a chance to undercut his own celebrity), much of the sequence feels like a vanity project. Hart rose up from very little thanks to a strong support system, and that's a message to be commended, but the opening veers too far into self-congratulation and back-patting. Better to let the comedy speak for itself.
And, boy, does it ever. Once Hart takes the stage (rising up out of the floor like a true rock star; it's no coincidence that he cites Eddie Murphy: Raw as a movie that made him want to get into comedy -- he's clearly taken a page out of the Murphy playbook), he unleashes a fantastic hour of deeply personal comedy, mining his role as a father, his recent divorce, his family, his childhood and even his own mother's death for routines in the non-stop attack. He may present like a rock star, but he's the first to bring himself back down to Earth and make himself totally relatable. The tension between his confidence and his self-deprecating streak is what has always made Hart so great as a comic.
Like a lot of Hart's comedy, Laugh at My Pain is meant to be seen and not just heard. Not that's it's particularly stylish or directed -- it isn't -- but so much of the humor of the film comes from Hart's physicality and expressive face. I liked his last album, Seriously Funny, but it failed to make much of an impression on me. Having now seen Hart's concert film, I suspect my amiable indifference to the last record is because I only got to hear it. Hart's comedy is about more than just the jokes. The writing in Laugh at My Pain is stronger, too, and Hart attacks it with gusto. There are stretches in the film in which Hart continues to build a joke and repeat lines with expert timing, building the momentum in such a way that the audience hardly has a chance to breathe. He never stops being funny.
It's a shame, then, that the stand-up section ends after about an hour so that the rest of the feature-length running time can be padded out by a mostly unfunny sketch about Hart and his friends planning a bank robbery. There are nods to many of the films in the genre -- mostly Reservoir Dogs, around which the whole sketch is based -- but none of the jokes really land. Worse, it kills the momentum of Hart's stand-up act. The movie ends with a whimper when it could have gone out with a bang.
In the end, Laugh at My Pain is undermined by a pair of bookend sequences which feel like filler, lessening the impact of what is a fantastic hour of comedy at the center. Had it just been put out as an hour-long stand-up special, Pain would be one of the year's best. And while I appreciate that Hart is trying to bring back the concert movie, he really hasn't. He released it as one, but the movie comes up a little short on the actual stand-up comedy. It's still worth seeing -- the hour of performance is definitely worth it -- but it doesn't totally work as a stand-up movie. It needs more stand-up and less movie.
- Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain is Rated R for sexual content and pervasive language.
- Release Date: 9/9/11
- Running Time: 88 minutes
- Studio: Comedy Central Films/Hartbeat Productions