Starring Kevin Hart as a widower trying to raise his young daughter, “Fatherhood” is an affable dramedy that lacks any real tension or drive. In a more dramatic turn than his usual manic comedic roles, Hart shows promise but isn’t quite there yet to craft something truly rounded, emotional and outside his well-known persona.
Directed by Paul Weitz from a screenplay credited to Weitz and Dana Stevens, the story is based on the real-life tale of Matthew Logelin, as told in his bestselling book “Two Kisses for Maddy.”
In the film, Hart plays Matt Logelin, whose wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), dies from a pulmonary embolism one day after giving birth to their daughter, Maddy. Grieving over his wife but committed to his daughter, Matt understandably struggles as a new parent. His in-laws (Alfre Woodard, Frankie Faison), in particular, doubt he is up to the challenge at hand.
Hart has attempted dramatic roles before, as in the remake “The Upside” and the little-seen indie “Let Go,” and the happy-sad tone of “Fatherhood” would seem to be the best possible fit for him. His comedic credentials are not in question, having been in movies that have grossed more than $4 billion at the box office, and with a string of successful stand-up specials and concert tours to his credit, but his skills as a dramatic actor still need sharpening.
In the lead-up to the release of “Fatherhood,” Hart made headlines for an interview addressing the backlash after he withdrew from hosting the 2019 Academy Awards over homophobic comments and tweets (some of them specifically involving parenting) he had made many years prior. Hart’s ongoing defensiveness lends a sour quality to his presence now, both on screen as well as off.
An excellent supporting cast really propels the film, each actor providing a different note. Woodard brings a seriousness as Matt’s mother-in-law, skeptical that he can raise Maddy on his own. Lil Rel Howery, as Matt’s supportive best friend, gets many of the movie’s funniest moments, as does “Barry’s” Anthony Carrigan as another friend and co-worker. DeWanda Wise as a nascent romantic interest brings a breezy sincerity. Melody Hurd as young Maddy adds a punch of energy. Paul Reiser has a sitcom ease as Matt’s understanding but exasperated boss.
All of which underscores how the story pulls Hart and his character in many different directions and as a performer he is unable to hold the center. He nearly always vibrates with a comedian’s energy, itching to launch into an extended riff rather than being a part of the scene. One moment in the film, when he delivers a tearful monologue to a sleeping Maddy wondering if he is up to raising her on his own, shows a stillness, vulnerability and depth he doesn’t reach elsewhere.
Weitz, who has quietly matured into a low-key conveyor of emotional warmth in films such as “Grandma” and the series “Mozart in the Jungle,” brings a graceful craftsmanship to the storytelling, trying to sand off all the rough edges and tie it all together. And he nearly succeeds, undone in part by the needy insistence of Hart’s performance, a begging-to-be-liked quality, always performing, never just existing.
Though Logelin’s story of loss and perseverance is touching, there isn’t really anything deep or convincing about grief or parenting in “Fatherhood,” making this promising tale something more middling and a touch disappointing.