True Story review – Wesley Snipes and Kevin Hart cannot salvage ludicrous crime caper

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Are we still surprised that comedians and comic actors can turn their hands to drama? Or are we sophisticated enough to know now that if you can do comedy, you can do anything. It’s trying to go the other direction that generally holes performances below the waterline.

True Story (Netflix) is here to add to the mountain of evidence that comedy-to-drama is a road worth travelling. The hugely successful US standup and comedy film star Kevin Hart plays a fictionalised version of himself – a hugely successful comic called the Kid riding high after a part in a billion-dollar superhero film – who returns in triumph to his home town, Philadelphia. The first episode opens with him speaking to an unseen therapist. “People think that they know me because I made them laugh or because they’ve been to a show. But they don’t know what I did to get here. Or what it takes to stay here.”

We flash back to one week earlier, where the hour-long episode (the rest are around half that length) properly begins. The Kid is finishing up his 20th appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and he and his entourage are dealing with intrusive fans in Pennsylvania as they settle into the Four Seasons ($5,000 a night, “but I haven’t paid for a room in years”) in advance of concerts he will give in the city.

The setup – and the marketing and publicity – have been clearly aimed at encouraging the viewer to think of Hart and the Kid as one and the same (in real life, Hart is a frequent guest on DeGeneres’s show, and was born and raised in Philadelphia) and of the series as autobiography-with-plausible-deniability. So it comes as a surprise that things develop quite so rapidly into a wholly implausible crime caper.

Waiting for the Kid in his hotel room is his beloved but burdensome older brother, Carlton. He is played with matchless intensity by Wesley Snipes, who gives him a simmering rage at the Kid’s success that looks a lot like sheer malevolence. It’s a barnstorming, scene-stealing performance from the get-go and Hart – in, remember, his first dramatic role – does phenomenally well as both the actor and the brother who has to avoid being annihilated by the mere force of Carlton’s presence.

It is Carlton who tempts the Kid off the wagon on a night out, and who calls in “a friend” to help dispose of the dead body with which the Kid is confronted the morning after. The friend – Ari – is brilliantly played by Billy Zane, with a Larry Hagman-esque lightness and brio. Suddenly, with Snipes alongside, it feels as if we are in an alternative reality, where the now-faded talents of the 90s got their due and are now entering their rightful place as character actors in the latest phase of their golden careers.

From there, the rest of the episode – and indeed the series – is mostly about disposing, increasingly desperately, of dead bodies, near-misses with curious cops (most of them infinitely distractable from their jobs upon sight of the Kid’s famous face), evading mobsters and generally playing Whac-a-Mole with the proliferating problems that keep emerging.

It’s all well-executed and has some nice touches – the question of just how you pay a criminal a vast sum without it being detected has always bothered me and is confronted here. Plus, Hart is a presence you want to stay with, while Snipes is so compelling you don’t really have a choice but to follow him. It just feels – a little, but inescapably – unnecessary. The points of connection between Hart and the Kid, which might have led to an examination of the power of fame and money to corrupt, are too minor to add any tension or wonderment (did he really …? Could he have possibly …?) amid such a baroquely exaggerated plot.

The real strength is perhaps in the opening few minutes. Hart and his team have to negotiate a fan’s overtures – aggressively well-meaning? Intentionally or unintentionally racist? – work out the material for a show (with the writer’s contributions lightly devalued at every turn), and try to find some grace under pressure, lucrative though that pressure is. I have seen less of that on screen than I have of unwieldy bodies being stuffed into suitcases, and it’s a truer story more worthy of following.

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