Fatherhood Review: Kevin Hart Transitions From Irascible Cutup to Earnest Actor in a Single-Dad Netflix Dramedy
It used to be that when you called a movie a glorified sitcom, it was an insult. But when you watch “Fatherhood,” an unabashedly formulaic, undeniably sweet Netflix dramedy in which Kevin Hart offers up a benign variation on his trademark irascibility in the role of a devoted but desperate single dad, it’s easy to imagine the sitcom version as richer, deeper, more layered. That said, on its own terms the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do. It transitions Hart from playfully scowling cutup to earnest heartfelt actor, and it does so in a way that, at times, is genuinely touching, even as the audience can see every sanded-down conflict and market-tested beat falling into place.
Directed and co-written by Paul Weitz (“Little Fockers,” “About a Boy”), adapting Matthew Longelin’s 2011 memoir, “Fatherhood” is grounded in its opening tragedy. Matt (Hart), a Boston tech engineer, and his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), are about to have their first child. In the hospital, Liz gives birth to a beautiful girl named Maddy…and then dies, suddenly, of a pulmonary embolism.
Movies going back to “Kramer vs. Kramer” have used single fatherhood to show men growing into their humanity. But Matt, raising Maddy from day one as an infant, faces an unusually steep climb. Still, he’s committed to doing it all on his own. He turns down an offer made by his doting mother (Thedra Porter) and his high-maintenance mother-in-law (Alfre Woodard) to move in with him for six months, even though millions of folks who are raising a baby with two parents have in-laws on the scene. You’d think that Matt, with a consuming job and a boss (Paul Reiser) who’s always noodging him, not to mention so little knowledge of child-rearing that he isn’t even aware of what colic is (he will learn), would be grateful for the help. But no, the film needs its one-man-and-a-baby high-concept situation: the jokes about poopie diapers, car seats, and collapsible strollers, the inevitable snippet of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” (“Baby baby!”).
This is a movie in which Kevin Hart hugs, cries, and learns how to grieve. But more than that he’ll play a scene in which he tosses out a zinger or two, as if he were blowing off exhaust, only to turn sincere. As he relaxes out of prickly comedy mode, you begin to notice how expressive his face can be — in “Fatherhood,” Hart uses his moodiness to tug at the underlying emotions of a good man warding off despair.
After 45 minutes, the movie cuts ahead to when Maddy is five years old. As played by Melody Hurd, she’s the complete adorable and well-adjusted child — exquisitely wise beyond her years, of course. Matt sends her to the same Catholic school her mother went to and develops a whim of iron about balking the dress code, so that Maddy can wear pants to kindergarten instead of a parochial-school skirt. This creates a whiff of dramatic friction, as does Matt’s re-entry into the dating world when he meets the saucy, gorgeous, so-supportive-she’s-saintly Swan (DeWanda Wise). Does it all work out well? Actually, it rarely stops working out well. But Hart gives a true performance. The most moving thing in the film is how, for the sake of his daughter, Matt keeps his late wife alive as a presence. She may be gone, but she’s the reason his glass is full.
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