‘Kevin Hart: What Now?’: Big crowd loves one man’s little stories

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In “Kevin Hart: What Now?,” the comedian performs for 50,000 people at an arena in Philadelphia. | Universal Pictures

This might not be the Golden Age of Stand-up Comedy (you could make an argument for every decade from the 1950s through the 1980s), but there’s no shortage of sharp and funny talents who can light up the night and fill some mighty big houses with their routines.

Amy Schumer is playing Madison Square Garden next week. Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK routinely sell out multiple engagements at venues such as the Chicago Theatre. Aziz Ansari has a huge following.

For sheer numbers, though, nobody tops Kevin Hart, whose live show popularity has reached rock-star status, as evidenced in “Kevin Hart: What Now?” a concert film of Hart’s Aug. 30, 2015, performance in front of 53,000 people at Lincoln Financial Field in Hart’s hometown of Philadelphia.

Think of all the comics plying their trade on a tiny stage with nothing but a microphone, a stool and maybe a bottle of water as their props. Hart has a stool and a towel and a beverage in a red Solo cup — but he’s communicating via a golden microphone, he’s roaming a stage big enough to hold an Aerosmith production and he’s backed by enormous video screens that alternate between showing his image and providing visual support to Hart’s routines.

If you think Kevin Hart is funny — as I do — you’ll laugh frequently, as I did. If you don’t, you’re not going to this movie in the first place, are you?

Before we get to the concert footage, there’s a mildly amusing if not particularly original short bit in which Hart plays himself as a James Bond-type secret agent, complete with former Bond Girl Halle Berry (as Halle Berry) as his partner in hijinks. There’s an obligatory poker game pitting Hart against an evil Russian villain (David Meunier), Ed Helms as a wacky bartender and Don Cheadle as Don Cheadle, who grows increasingly impatient with Hart’s clowning around and his stalling tactics at the poker table.

OK, but why? Was there not enough stand-up material to fill a movie?

Tim Story directs the short film. Leslie Small takes over for the stand-up stuff and does a fine job of capturing the enormity of the arena setting juxtaposed with the image of one small man telling his stories to more than 50,000 people.

Cameras catch Hart in close-up as he mocks himself, imitates his fiancé, his father and his children and spins outrageous anecdotes spun from kernels of real-life experiences. We get frequent close-ups of the multi-cultural audience (Hart takes note of the crowd’s racial makeup as a hopeful sign) as they laugh, double over with laughter, laugh some more, wipe away tears of laughter.

At first the big-board visuals illustrating Hart’s driveway, his backyard, the open waters for a routine about a woman getting attacked by a shark, et al., seem like a bit of a crutch. It’s not as if Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy or George Carlin needed such visual aids, right? But considering the size of the venue, the photos and animated videos are probably a valuable tool. (The text messages that pop up on the big screens as Hart does a spot-on routine about a woman carrying on a dialogue with herself when her man isn’t answering definitely help to bring home the punchlines.)

Hart has a strange fixation on scenarios in which people are maimed. There’s a routine about a woman who has her shoulder bitten off, another routine about a man who loses both kneecaps to an orangutan attack, and yet another bit imagining a woman losing an arm and a leg to the aforementioned shark attack. All very funny, but that’s a lot of wacky-injury material for one night.

I wouldn’t put Hart in the same league as Seinfeld as a master of observation, Louis CK as an edgy storyteller, Pryor or Murphy or Carlin or Robin Williams as a genius of stand-up. He’s really good. He clearly enjoys what he’s doing, and he basks in the glory of selling out such a huge arena.

Hart never really addresses the question of “What Now?” What’s next is more sold-out stand-up dates — and hopefully some scripts better suited to Hart’s strengths when next we see him playing someone other than Kevin Hart.

★★★

Universal Picturespresents a film directed byLeslie Small and Tim Story and written byKevin Hart, Harry Ratchford and Joey Wells. Rated R (forsome sexual material, and language throughout). Running time: 96minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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