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“Fatherhood” is based on Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Matthew Logelin. I have not read this book nor had I ever heard of Logelin. If he sounds familiar to you, it’s because he had a very popular blog back in 2008 where he covered the sudden death of his wife, Liz, and his journey as a single father to the daughter who would never know her mother. Logelin's story eventually wound up on Oprah’s show, in People magazine, and now it's on Netflix. I imagine it’s a strange phenomenon when a movie about your life has been made, but it has to be even stranger to discover that you, a White man, are now being played by Kevin Hart. If this is the casting game folks are fitting to play, then I demand that Meryl Streep star in “The Odie Henderson Story.” She won’t even have to change her accent; she already has mine.
I’ll refrain from making any comparisons to Melvin van Peebles’ “Watermelon Man,” because the choice of Hart does very little to change the story. Colorblind casting is often done with no regard to how much, or how little, it affects the plot or one’s suspension of disbelief. Sometimes, it creates the potential for a more interesting take on the material, an avenue movies rarely go down because the script has been written for the casting default rule, not the exception. Since this is a true story, we can’t expect too many deviations from the events that occurred. But since there are so few films about Black fathers relating to their daughters, it’s a missed opportunity that this one is so generic, so flat and so derivative of far better movies. I can completely believe that Hart’s Matt would feel just as devastated by the situation fate thrust him in, but I also know that the real Logelin would not have faced many of the things his cinematic counterpart would have dealt with on his journey. Feelings are universal, but the details are not. If you think my bringing this up is disingenuous or unfair, might I point you toward the discourse that arises whenever someone says Idris Elba would make a great James Bond.
Despite all this, Hart is a very credible anchor here. Appearing in almost every frame, he makes “Fatherhood,” directed by Paul Weitz and co-written by Weitz and Dana Stevens, more watchable than it should be. Becoming a new parent has its frustrations and Hart is great at being aggravated. It’s kind of his trademark. He wields exasperation with the same mastery Jack Benny devoted to playing a cheapskate. He also shines in scenes with great actors like Alfre Woodard, who plays his mother-in-law, Marian, and has a lot of love interest chemistry with DeWanda Wise’s Swan. Most importantly, Hart effectively bonds with the talented Melody Hurd, who assumes the role of his daughter, Maddy, after the first act’s infant-based shenanigans.
Those shenanigans consist of the same jokes you’ve seen in countless movies, repeated ad nauseum here. There are the requisite moments of bodily fluids exploding out of both ends of an infant, followed by the familiar scenes where men can’t change diapers or quiet a baby. Regarding the latter, Matt is apparently so immature and incompetent that his wife’s body has barely been lain to rest before Marian practically demands he turn Maddy over to her to be raised. Matt’s own Mom thinks he should at least move back to Minnesota to be closer to both sets of parents. But Matt wants to keep his current job, the house that reminds him of Liz, and his home city. He also wants to continue hanging with his friends Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan).
Jordan and Oscar are the first sign this movie is going to play like an '80s sitcom. They are horribly obnoxious, wrong-headed and clueless cavemen who chatter incessantly. In fact, Oscar babbles so much that the only Croatian phrase he knows is “shut up” because his wife constantly says it. Jordan makes inappropriate comments in the opening scenes at Liz’s funeral, ruining any genuine emotion Weitz was aiming for when he intercuts them with Matt’s moving and sad attempt at a eulogy. Though Oscar is the catalyst for Matt meeting Swan, he and Jordan are otherwise employed as cringe-inducing comedy relief. When Marian tells Matt his friends are weird, it’s an understatement.
In addition to the trials and tribulations of single parenting, we also have to go down a checklist of topics “Fatherhood” wishes to address. Issues like gender-based clothing, lack of support groups catering to single fathers, and work/home-life are given cursory lip service in scenes that feel rushed and unfocused. Paul Reiser shows up as Matt’s boss who, like Marian, is initially positioned as an antagonist. The office scenes, which include an “important conference” interrupted by a crying baby, lack any suspense or even gravitas because they play on such a superficial level. So do the scenes at the Catholic school where a stern nun is angered that Matt won’t adhere to the skirt and shirt uniform policy; Maddy wants to wear pants and boys’ underwear instead, a sign of independence that could have used more fleshing out.
Though her main purpose is as a catalyst for the expected moment when the film guilt trips Matt for wanting to spend time with an adult, Swan is at least given sharp insight and a slew of witty lines. Her camaraderie with Maddy is heartwarming and sweet. And when things go south for her and Matt, her feelings are respected enough for them to affect us. Wise is excellent, lighting up the screen with her every appearance, and she’s funny enough to convince the viewer she can pull focus away from the film’s major league star. Also stealing scenes is the always welcome Frankie Faison, who plays Matt’s father-in-law.
“Fatherhood” is at its best and most watchable when it’s just Hart and Hurd onscreen. Matt and Maddy’s undeniable and reciprocated love for one another radiates from the actors, even in their broadest scenes of comedy. Hart is a good actor who’s adept at straddling comedy and drama (see his excellent work in “About Last Night"). When he questions if he is a good enough father, you feel his concerns. His energy and goodwill keep this film afloat, albeit barely. Still, I can’t help but mourn the movie this could have been had the filmmakers written a movie that suited Hart instead of using him as a substitute.
On Netflix today.
Kevin Hart as Matt
DeWanda Wise as Lizze aka Swan
Alfre Woodard as Marian
Melody Hurd as Maddy
Lil Rel Howery as Jordan
Anthony Carrigan as Jordan
Paul Reiser as Paul
Deborah Ayorinde as Liz