Can Will Packer’s ‘Night School’ with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish make the grade?

Originally posted Wednesday, September 26, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

During the week before any of his films come out, Atlanta producer Will Packer said he always feels a mixture of anxiety and excitement. 

“I’ve had some pretty good opening weekends,” Packer said in an interview earlier this week, “probably better than most. I’m a little spoiled in that respect. I’ve got high expectations.”

Indeed, his latest comedic vehicle “Night School” (out Friday, September 28) has all the ingredients for a big hit: an easy-to-absorb concept (misfits try to get GEDs), two of the hottest stars on the planet (Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish), an ensemble of amusing talent (e.g. Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Romany Malco, Al Madrigal) and the director of the monster hit “Girls Trip.” (domestic gross: $148 million)

Movieweb is projecting a decent $18 million opening for “Night School” but it could easily go higher. 

Packer knows how to produce hits on modest budgets, from “The Gospel” (domestic box office: $16 million) and “Stomp the Yard” ($75 million) to “Think Like a Man” ($96 million) and two “Ride Along” films (combined: $280 million). This is also the first time Hart’s new production company has developed a film with Packer’s company.

“I’ve tried to be very specific and strategic with the kind of movies I make and the budgets I spend on them,” Packer said. “I am always working within a really efficient budget level.” 

“Night School,” Packer said, was made for under $30 million. “Hollywood nowadays doesn’t make a lot of movies in that range,” Packer said. “They’re in the business of home runs. Not a lot of people can make movies at this level and make real money.”

Hart himself has become a box-office heavy hitter, many with Packer. “Night School” doesn’t change the formula for Hart: he plays a likable man with fundamentally good intentions and a motor mouth. In this case, his character Todd has undiagnosed learning disabilities that prevented him from finishing high school. Seventeen years later, he needs to get a GED to join a friend’s financial company. He hides the fact he’s taking the night school class from his more successful fiance. 

Haddish, as his GED teacher, shot this film right after her breakthrough role on “Girls Trip” and goes toe to toe with Hart and literally on the mat at one point in an MMA cage.   

There isn’t a whole lot of consistent character development but the talented cast is able to spread the laughs out well. Madrigal shines especially bright as a waiter with aspirations to be both a pop superstar and a dental hygienist who pronounces “hygienist” in a super weird way. 

Mary Lynn Rajskub plays a high school drop-out mom who isn't happy at home and tries (but fails miserably) to hide that fact.

Rajskub, best known as sarcastic tech nerd Chloe O’Brien on “24,” embraces her naturally comedic side as one of Hart’s classmates, a high school drop-out mom who wants more out of life. She wrings plenty of funny moments in a type of big broad comedy she’s never been in before. She even gets an emotional moment near the end. 

“The script was really funny,” she said. “There was some heart to it. And it’s a true ensemble piece.”
“Night School,” was “different for me and exciting,” Rajskub noted. She loved the atmosphere director Malcolm D. Lee, the producers and fellow actors created, calling them “generous and fun.” Even overnight shoots, she said, involved plenty of off-screen giggling and laughing. 

And watching Hart was a marvel, she said. “He’s just a force,” she said. “He never stops. He works 12-hour days with us, then does stadium stand-up shows on weekends.”

Hart, added Packer, “is one of the most giving and selfless people in this industry.”

The film, shot last year over 35 days, embraced Atlanta since Packer knows the city intimately. The soundtrack features tunes by Jagged Edge, T.I. and Outkast - twice. 

A Craftsman near Little Five Points is featured as Hart’s childhood home, an office building across from the High Museum becomes Hart’s girlfriend’s office and Westlake High School in Atlanta is home to most of the school-related shots. The location director also found a Mrs. Winners on Fulton Industrial Highway across from a strip club to masquerade as a Christian Chicken shop where Hart’s character dresses as a chicken.

Packer still chuckles about the line they had Hart’s character use that is featured in the trailer: “If I stand in the right spot, I can smell cocoa butter and fried chicken at the same time!” 

Below is a 20-minute talk Packer and Hart did at Morehouse College earlier this month to talk about education and the film. Packer enjoyed teasing Hart. You can tell these two have known each other a long time. This is their seventh film. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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