For a guy who is considered a powerhouse one-man publicity machine, Kevin Hart surprised me by not being out promoting his latest work yet. Fatherhood is a lighter drama with dark corners about a recent widower whose wife died shortly after childbirth, leaving him a single father of a baby girl, facing all of the perils of raising a child by oneself. As a result of not stumbling upon Hart doing press for the film, I began watching it with next to no idea what it was about and was mostly pleasantly surprised by how seriously it takes the character’s plight and how heartfelt and charming the end result is.
Fatherhood being a film starring Kevin Hart, there are of course times when he can’t help but go for the easy laugh (when you have baby poop right in front of you, you have to mention it). But for the most part, his Matt plays it straight and lets the bulk of the humor land on his weird friend Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and co-worker Victor (Anthony Carrigan). I think a big reason for the nice balance of comedy and drama is due to director/co-writer Paul Weitz (About A Boy, Grandma), who seems to excel at just such a tone.
Based on Matt Logelin’s book Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Love & Loss and co-written with Dana Stevens, the film begins with the death of Matt’s wife Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) after an emergency cesarean delivery that seemed to go swimmingly until Liz passed out and never woke up. The incident not only left Matt crushed but also left Liz’s parents (Alfre Woodard and Frankie Faison) destroyed and pressuring Matt to move himself and daughter Maddy to their neck of the woods, from Boston to Minnesota. Matt resists but also doubts himself enough to agree to a six-month trial of raising Maddy himself before making a decision. Thankfully, the film doesn’t really become about this ridiculous wager, and Woodard’s Marian sees what a good father Matt is becoming.
The film jumps ahead a few years, and now Maddy (Melody Hurd) is attending Catholic elementary school and showing signs that she misses a mother she never knew. As one would expect, Matt has put his personal life on hold for his daughter, but an awkward set-up actually bears fruit when he meets DeWanda Wise’s Lizzie (an unfortunate name that leads to Matt and Maddy calling her Swan), and the two begin dating. But rather than set up Matt to fail and question his abilities as a father, the filmmakers present him with a crisis that forces him to consider leaving Maddy with the grandparents for a while until he figures out the kind of life he wants to lead from this point forward. This does’t come across as a selfish moment—Matt genuinely wants his daughter to be safe and happy, and he doubts for a moment whether that can happen with him.
I think it’s safe to say that Kevin Hart has never quite been tested like this as an actor, despite some attempts at it (he doesn’t quite get there in The Upside), and I think he pulls off some of the film’s more emotional moments without embarrassing himself. His struggles seem authentic, and the film doesn’t paint his raising Maddy as any more traumatic than raising any smart, inquisitive kid. They have clearly found a way of living that worked for the first few years of her life, and Fatherhood captures a moment in time when needs are transitioning for both father and daughter. With Weitz’s steady-handed direction and Hart dialing down the silliness, the two are able to bring something special and relatable to the film.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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