Review: 'Fatherhood' keeps its heart in the right place
“Fatherhood” for Father’s Day weekend. Talk about perfect timing.
Raunchy standup sensation Kevin Hart smooths over his rough comic edges to play a single dad pushed to his limits in this PG-13 dramedy now streaming on Netflix. Predictable? Mostly. But a boon to audiences in the mood for a good cry between giggles.
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Hart plays Matt Hogelin, a rising star at a Boston tech company whose life hits crisis mode when his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), dies of a pulmonary embolism just after giving birth to their daughter, Maddy.
That leaves Matt with a major decision to make: Lean on his mom, Anna (Thedra Porter), and mother-in-law, Marion (Alfre Woodward), to raise Maddy back in Minnesota or continue his Boston job and go it alone as a dad. The title clearly indicates which decision he’ll make.
In the early scenes, Hart digs into the role with admirable restraint, touching on the fear and helplessness that come when responsibility must overcome grief. There’s always been an actor inside Hart’s brand as the rowdy star of the “Ride Along” and “Jumanji” blockbusters.
It helps that “Fatherhood” is based in reality. Directed by Paul Weitz (“Little Fockers,” “About a Boy”) from a script he wrote with Dana Stevens, the movie is an adaptation of “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love” by the real Matt Hogelin.
Certain racial adjustments had to be made since Matt is being portrayed by a Black actor.
“There’s a cultural difference,” said Hart — himself the father of four — of the role originally intended for Channing Tatum. Hart’s goal “to show Black fathers in a good light” became the film’s driving force.
Where the movie differs from the bestselling 2011 book, which covered only the first year of Matt’s parenthood, is its tilt toward laughs and a time jump that picks up at a Catholic school kindergarten where Maddy — played with precocious snap by a terrific Melody Hurd — trades quips with her dad about the school’s dress code. She will not wear a skirt. So he does.
Matt’s best buds are also all about fun. As hilariously embodied by Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”) and Anthony Carrigan (“Barry”), they even sing the crying, colic-sick baby to sleep. And suddenly, “Fatherhood” is walking, talking land sassing like a Kevin Hart movie.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s just not the thing that made Hogelin’s book so painfully authentic. Don’t blame Hollywood for the romantic angle when Matt falls for the lovely Liz (DeWanda Wise), an animator with the same name as his dead wife. That really happened.
“Fatherhood” is built to go down easy. Why waste time with stinging scenes between Hart and Woodard, who brings honest complexity to a stock character invented for the film, when you can let Hart go for formula laughs as Matt trips over himself trying to be a dad?
Luckily, Hart and young Hurd are experts at dodging sappy cliches. When Matt puts Maddy to bed with one kiss from him and one from mommy, genuine feelings of love and loss cut through. Even when the generic script fails to fire up a fresh response, “Fatherhood” keeps its heart in the right place. And that’s a lot.
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