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This past fall, when Jonathan Rosenbaum introduced the James Cagney comedy Blonde Crazy (1931) at the Siskel Center, he argued that that Cagney's screen persona in the '30s was never plausible but always relatable. One can't readily imagine Cagney's character in Crazy existing in the real world. He's a walking contradiction—a wisecracking con man with a mean streak who's as kind to his friends as he is ruthless with the rich folks he swindles. And yet one sympathizes with Cagney—in comedies as well as musicals and crime dramas—on the basis of his crowd-pleasing energy and his deep-seated understanding of what it's like to eke out a living.
I thought of Rosenbaum's assessment of Cagney when I watched Kevin Hart last week in The Wedding Ringer, currently the number one movie comedy in America. In Ringer, Hart also plays something of a sympathetic con man, a life-of-the-party type who charges rich losers tens of thousands to pose as the best man at their weddings. The character might not like most of his clients (at every chance he gets he fleeces them for more money), but he still works hard for them, playing the best friend so convincingly they often think he's for real. A series of photos in Hart's office show the numerous clients with whom he's ingratiated himself—among them Jews, Koreans, former frat boys, computer geeks, and a gay couple—demonstrating his ease with a variety of people. It's a ridiculous scenario, but with Hart at the center, you can almost believe why so many folks like him.
In any case the character is a much better fit for Hart than the childish underachiever he played in Ride Along, the hit comedy he starred in last year. Still I feel as though he's yet to find a starring role that mines the full extent of his talent. The most impressive thing about Hart's stand-up specials may be his sustained energy: as soon as he steps onstage he fires on all cylinders for a good 50 minutes, often spitting out jokes so rapidly that I marvel at his delivery even when I don't find his material funny. Hart swam competitively and played varsity basketball in high school, and his athleticism remains evident in his stage performances—he'll launch into a bit of physical comedy as quickly and fluidly as he launches into one of his unbroken strings of comic bullshit. Unfortunately most of the movie comedies in which he's appeared are edited in the choppy manner of so many sub-Apatow productions, meaning they give us only glimpses of his remarkable stamina.
To get a sense of Hart's untapped potential as a leading man, consider how much he has in common with Cagney. Both came from poverty: Cagney was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Hart in inner-city Philadelphia. Both excelled in sports as adolescents (Cagney boxed and played baseball semiprofessionally before he took acting), worked a variety of odd jobs in their early 20s, then spent years honing their craft as stage entertainers (Cagney in vaudeville, Hart on the stand-up circuit). Hart is five-foot-five, the same height Cagney measured as an adult, and one senses in each man's dynamism an effort to compensate for his small stature. This mix of dynamism and puniness (as well as street smarts and confidence) makes both Cagney and Hart irresistible as underdogs, even when their characters behave callously.
One big difference between the two is that Hart hasn't yet allowed himself to appear menacing in the movies. Cagney, of course, played villains as brilliantly as he played heroes. That concentrated energy, which made him so electrifying as a con man or choreographer, made him terrifying as a gangster. (Part of Cagney's enduring fascination stems from the overlap between his comic and noncomic performances—one sees a bit of the showman in his criminals and a bit of the monster in his good guys.) Hart sometimes seems capable of Cagney-like menace in his stand-up specials. When he goes off, in Let Me Explain (2013), on exes whom he considers "psychos," one senses genuine hostility, and Hart strengthens this impression when he jokes, in another routine, about threatening to punch a woman in the throat. (Is it worth mentioning that Cagney often threatened and occasionally hit women in his 30s vehicles?) I find this side of Hart appalling, though I can see him outgrowing it, or at least learning to channel it into something constructive, a la Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Now that Hart is a bona fide leading man, I hope he's given chances to test his range. Failing that, I hope he's cast in parts that allow him to draw on personal history the way he does in his stand-up. Hart could play a gang leader, a basketball coach, a theatrical agent, a union foreman, or a police lieutenant. In any of these roles, you can see him asserting authority the way Cagney did—with chutzpah, and by conveying in his walk and talk how hard he's worked to get where he is.