Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘Fatherhood’ Shows Kevin Hart’s Softer Side

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Fatherhood serves as, if nothing else, a reminder that Kevin Hart is a charming leading man. Thankfully the movie is by itself an earnest and sweet look at a single father struggling to raise his daughter. It has its faults, but Hart and his co-stars more than make up for them.

Paul Weitz directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Dana Stevens. The book the film is based on is called “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love” by Matthew Logelin. I haven’t read the book, but Weitz is no stranger to adaptations as he also directed and adapted Nick Hornby’s “About A Boy” a movie that is surprisingly sensitive in how its characters are rendered,

In Fatherhood, Weitz and Stevens give us characters that may seem a little broad but who haven’t had their edges sanded off. The script grants the characters the freedom to be at times frustrating and unlikeable. Yes, this is a feel-good movie, but Weitz and Stevens take the time and care to give us characters we can care about.

One of the great surprises of Fatherhood is how it takes its time. The first half of the movie is Hart’s Matthew coming to terms with the death of his wife Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) while also struggling to raise his newborn daughter Maddy (Rhythm Hurd). 

At first, it seems like Fatherhood might be another Kevin Hart vehicle, a movie with a loose plot and scene after scene of Hart riffing on one thing or another. We have a cast of stock characters that include the goofy best friend, Jordan (Lil Rey Howery), a wise-cracking antagonistic childhood friend who never seems to say the right thing, and his socially awkward coworker Oscar (Anthony Carrigan).

But the death of Liz leaves Matt unmoored. He doesn’t believe he can raise Maddy, and neither does his Mother-in-Law Marian (Alfre Woodard) or his mother, Anna (Thedra Porter). However, Marian’s confidence is considerably lower than Anna’s. 

Fatherhood lets us get to know Liz, so we understand the hole she’s leaving behind when she dies. Most movies like Fatherhood don’t give us the courtesy to get to know the mother and instead blithely kill them off in the first few minutes as if they are extra weight that must be shed. Weitz wisely flashes back and forth, allowing us to see Liz and Matt together, so his grief has that much more weight.

Hart has shown he can act before and proves so once again here as he delicately plays a grieving husband and an unsure father. Much of the humor in Fatherhood isn’t new, but Hart, Howery, Carrigan, and Paul Reiser as Hart’s boss, find new ways to tell old jokes. Every comedy about immature grown-ups thrust into parenthood will have a poop joke or a diaper joke.

Fatherhood has two of them, but Weitz does an excellent job in that it never feels stale. One gag involves Reiser’s Howard and Matt talking about the transitional stages of baby poop. Howard warns him, “Enjoy the creamy sh*t. Solid is a whole other ballgame.” There’s a payoff to the observation later that is hilarious because Weitz and Hart never go overboard.

The comedy and the drama are all handed in a slice-of-life manner. Once Maddy grows a little older, she is played by Melody Hurd, and the movie becomes a father-daughter story about two people trying to figure out their lives knowing there’s supposed to be someone else there.

Weitz’s direction is subtle, and he uses the camera much more as a recording device. Still, he understands how to set a scene and permits his actors’ talk and connect without feeling like they are merely riffing or trying to find a joke. Hurd and Hart have a sweet chemistry together, and Hart shows a side of himself that is usually hidden in his movies.

Hart and Hurd’s relationship is the bedrock of Fatherhood. The two attempt to navigate life while also trying to figure out what is best for the other. At times the narrative felt messy, and I appreciated how Weitz trusted the audience to understand this is not one of those movies with a ticking clock of some grandiose emotional reveal. It is a simple story of a father and a daughter trying to figure out how best to show each other the love and care they deserve and need.

On Maddy’s first day of school, Weitz shows us the struggle of Black hair as Maddy and Matt try to figure out exactly how to get it presentable. Though Weitz never makes any overt statements, little things like that are a nice touch. The result is that we have a loving Black father and daughter relationship, which is not something Hollywood enjoys showing. 

Weitz and Stevens also include a running story in which Maddy doesn’t like wearing skirts and prefers boy’s underwear. Matt doesn’t understand but seeing how comfortable and happy Maddy is in jeans, he decides to let it go. He even finds himself arguing with the nuns at Maddy’s school for her right to wear pants regardless of the gendered dress code.

Later on, we meet Swan (DeWanda Wise), an animator for a raunchy cartoon “Lucky Jim,” of which Maddy is a huge fan, much to Matt’s surprise. Wise is delightful, she and Hart make a cute couple, and I liked the way Fatherhood let them become a couple that was comfortable with each other, feeling each other’s sensibilities out, and such.

My biggest gripe with the film is that Porter isn’t given as much screen time as Hart’s mother. Possibly this is because Woodard as Marion is a more prominent name and who’s going to complain about having more Alfre Woodard. I’m not advocating for less Woodard, just more Porter and more of Marion’s husband played by the lovable character actor Frankie Faison. 

I admired how Weitz and Stevens explored how everybody missed Liz and gave us moments in which we got to see how characters dealt with her loss. Many movies are about loss and trauma, but the best ones don’t give platitudes but instead show us how people try to live their lives the best they can, struggling with grief and loss. Fatherhood is a sweet movie with sweet performances that somehow manage to explore tender, complex emotions without being too cloying.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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