Kevin Hart’s ‘Lift’ shows how the Netflix algorithm has revived the ‘B movie’

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Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart

Know Your IdolKevin Hart’s new movie “Lift” is fine for what it is, featuring a heist designed for light escapism. Yet it’s also a prime example of the Netflix algorithm at work: using data to determine what subscribers like, then feeding that demand, with the content almost secondary to the boxes these projects check.

Do you like Adam Sandler? Jamie Foxx? Ryan Reynolds? Hart? Then Netflix not only has a series or movie you might like, but another ready to stream right after if you happen to give a thumb’s up to the first one.

For the talent, the arrangement comes with what appears to be an inordinate amount of freedom, including the opportunity to stretch their muscles in different roles and genres (see “Lift,” a pretty straightforward caper film, or Hart’s dramatic turn in the Netflix series “True Story”). Less ambitiously, some have used that latitude to work with family members, from Foxx and daughter Corinne in the sitcom “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!” to Sandler and his entire brood starring in “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah.”

Mostly, though, “Lift” and many of these star-driven productions have the once-over-lightly feel of what used to be called “B movies,” back in the day when Hollywood needed a second title to accompany a more prominent film so theaters could offer double features.

B movies haven’t served that function since TV began to come of age, but the concept of projects that essentially piggyback on bigger fare has migrated to streaming. While “Lift” doesn’t fit one aspect of the “B movie” description – they were usually shot on a low budget – it’s essentially serving the same purpose, leveraging other Kevin Hart items, so if you happen to like the “Jumanji” reboot or his standup specials, hey, there’s this movie too.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in July, Netflix’s data analysis, based on proprietary technology, is “key to the company’s success,” informing its decision-making about “what shows and movies to produce, whether to renew them, and whether to share them with any given viewer through the company’s famous recommendation algorithms.”

The potential drawback for consumers is when projects arrive sprinkled with the aroma of having been brought to life thanks to that somewhat crass commercial formulation, as opposed to any whiff of real inspiration.

Following Sandler’s multi-movie deal, Hart signed a four-movie pact with Netflix in 2021, after topping its roster of stand-up specials the previous year. Later that year he starred in and produced “True Story,” a dark drama about a famous comedian drawn into an escalating series of deadly choices.

“Lift” also represents a modest stretch for Hart, albeit in a safe, unassuming package. He plays a crack thief working with an international team of accomplices, uniting with an Interpol agent (“Loki’s” Gugu Mbatha-Raw) after being recruited by the authorities to rob an airplane carrying $500 million in gold that belongs to a really bad criminal.

The idea of the government employing the services of a notorious thief vaguely echoes the 1960s TV show “It Takes a Thief,” although like the “B movie” label, “Lift” dresses that up in all manner of newfangled high-tech gadgetry.

In theory, turning talented people loose provides the opportunity for risk-taking and creativity, and there’s been some of that in this context. Often, though, talent like Sandler (see “Murder Mystery” and its sequel) or Reynolds (“The Adam Project”) has been content to predictably feed the beast inside their comfort zones.

In short, Netflix’s star-vehicle approach has produced a few good movies along with lots of forgettable ones. But for the streaming service, the strategy remains clear: if you like the names cited above, we’ve got you covered.

For Netflix, and other services that emulate it, the modern B movie appears to be paying dividends. For viewers, the track record feels mixed, with the concession that if “Lift” doesn’t appeal to you but Kevin Hart generally does, you’re just a click away from something that might.

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