Smart title for a stupid comedy that surprises only by being less awful then you expect. It’s bad, but not painfully so — and in a bummer summer like this one that’s high praise. The long and short of Central Intelligence is that the joke is all in the central sight gag: A snack-sized Kevin Hart starring opposite Dwayne Johnson, who wasn’t called “The Rock” for nothing. Hart is a master of barely controlled hysteria, and Johnson is a world-class charmer. They’re innately appealing performers, even if they don’t achieve the buddy bliss of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys. But their first screen pairing suggests a chemistry this movie only fitfully exploits. You root for them.
In a prologue, set in high school 20 years ago, computer trickery shows us that Johnson’s character, Robbie Weirdicht, was a fat kid relentlessly bullied by his classmates. All except for Hart’s kindly Calvin Joyner, the popular kid voted most likely to succeed. Guess what? In the space of two decades the tables are turned. Muscled Robbie is now the rock star, a rogue CIA agent who radiates charisma. And Calvin is a loser accountant whose lawyer wife (Danielle Nicolet) unintentionally makes him feel like half a man.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, whose Dodgeball is one of my guiltiest pleasures, Central Intelligence has a script by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) that gets off a few good zingers before the action assault drowns out all signs of clever. “You’re like a black Will Smith,” Robbie tells a befuddled Calvin. The plot, such as it is, involves Robbie persuading Calvin to help him track down a secret nuke code capable of destroying the world. Should Calvin trust a school friend who still watches Sixteen Candles on a continuous loop or turn Robbie over to his CIA boss (Amy Ryan slumming and loving it) who insists the friendly giant is an evil mastermind?
If you’re expecting the story threads to cohere, you’re in the wrong multiplex. Central Intelligence always takes the lazy way out. You go along for the ride because Hart and Johnson promise something they can’t deliver: a movie as funny as they are.