“Central Intelligence” Is Smart About Its Dumb Comedy

Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2016)

Dwayne Johnson – the former pro wrestler once known as “The Rock” – has, since his film debut, demonstrated a compelling screen presence, which should come as no surprise, given that the world of wrestling is as much about performance as musculature. Not only does he always hold our attention, but he is also blessed with a fine sense of comic timing. In fact, he’s often better in comedic roles (Pain & Gain) than in his more serious fare (San Andreas), as the seeming disconnect between his hulking form and perfect delivery of bon mots makes the laughs that follow doubly special. In Central Intelligence, paired with Kevin Hart (The Wedding Ringer) – whose manic energy makes him the perfect foil for Johnson’s gentle-giant routine – Johnson shines once more. Hart’s a funny man, as well, but it’s the chemistry of the two, together, that makes the film work as well as it does. Otherwise, it’s just another improbably silly buddy flick.

Johnson plays Bob Stone and Hart plays Calvin Joyner. They’re both in their late thirties now, but the film begins with a flashback to the final weeks of high school, when Bob was an overweight nerd mercilessly picked on by bullies, and Calvin was the big man on campus (though not one of the bullies). In that opening, we watch as Bob – a CGI creation with an obese body and Johnson’s face – is humiliated in front of the entire school. As everyone, including teachers, laughs at Bob’s predicament, Calvin is the only who shows him any kindness.

Flash forward to the present, where we meet Calvin who, on the verge of his 20th high-school reunion, feels like his life has never lived up to its full potential. Voted “most likely to succeed,” he is now an accountant, married to his high-school sweetheart, and deeply dissatisfied. When Bob friends him on Facebook, out of the blue, he agrees to meet him in a bar, not expecting the muscled behemoth that Bob has become. And so the fun begins, since Bob is much more than just a workout freak, but some kind of super-agent. The bullied has become the protector, and Calvin, once the alpha, now finds himself following the former beta’s lead as gunfire and explosions erupt around them.

Does the world need more dumb comedies? Why not? This one’s not particularly memorable, scriptwise, but there are genuine laughs to be had, and that’s no small feat. Other folks drop by for a quick visit – Amy Ryan (Bridge of Spies), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Jason Bateman (This Is Where I Leave You) and Melissa McCarthy (Spy), among them – but this is all about Johnson and Hart, and how much fun they are having together, and how much fun we have watching them. True, it’s a comedy with its share of cartoonish violence (hence the PG-13 rating), but it’s still a welcome reprieve from the tragedies of our day. I won’t remember it next week, but I’m not unhappy to have seen it.

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