Kevin Hart's Netflix film Fatherhood draws on a bottomless reserve of audience sympathy

·3 min read

It's a durable bit of Hollywood conventional wisdom: Behind every good man is a dead woman. Fatherhood, a new Netflix movie starring Kevin Hart, is its latest affirmation. A movie widower, especially one with children, draws on a bottomless reserve of audience sympathy, granted the benefit of the doubt far beyond what any woman €" however generous or virtuous or grief-stricken €" can expect.

I don't mean to suggest that Matt Logelin, the Minneapolis-bred, Boston-dwelling tech guy played by Hart, is anything other than the nice guy and conscientious dad that Fatherhood makes him out to be. The same goes for the real Matt Logelin, author of the memoir Two Kisses for Maddy, on which this movie, directed by Paul Weitz from a script he wrote with Dana Stevens, is based. The problem is that Weitz, Stevens and Hart are so eager to protect Matt from any hint of judgment or conflict that they come close to denying him a personality.

Kevin Hart and Melody Hurd. Phillippe Bosse/ Netflix.
Kevin Hart and Melody Hurd. Phillippe Bosse/ Netflix.

Kevin Hart and Melody Hurd. Phillippe Bosse/ Netflix

It takes some effort to make Hart bland, and he is occasionally allowed a bark of sarcasm or a flare of humour amid the tears, smiles and way-too-easy jokes about how hard it is to build a crib, install a car seat, unfold a stroller and change a diaper. When he is snappish with his friends or testy with his mother-in-law, everyone on both sides of the camera €" and the screen €" is quick to make excuses. After a while, this solicitude becomes indistinguishable from self-pity.

The story begins as Matt struggles for words at the funeral of his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), and then flashes back to the days leading up to the birth of their daughter, Maddy, and Liz's death. The baby's grandparents urge him to move back to Minnesota, where all of them live, but he insists on staying in Boston and raising Maddy by himself. He has two goofy friends, an oddball co-worker (Anthony Carrigan) and a bumbling Don Juan (Lil Rel Howery), who stick by their pal and weather his sometimes cruel jabs.

One of Weitz's strengths as a director €" evident in About a Boy, In Good Company and Grandma €" is his knack for making kindness interesting. He's a dry-eyed sentimentalist, gentle in his mockery and disinclined to designate villains. Everyone in this movie is decent, which is beautiful in its way but also stultifying. There is a whisper of tension between Matt and Liz's mother, Marian (Alfre Woodard), a mostly unspoken history of mutual dislike that threatens to erupt into conflict.

Similarly, the relationship between Matt and Maddy €" who halfway through the movie is suddenly 5 and played by the charming and impish Melody Hurd €" is as smooth and tidy as freshly installed tile. There are invocations of the inherent messiness of parenthood, but spills are mopped up instantly.

Contrary to what screenwriting manuals will tell you, absence of dramatic conflict is not necessarily a flaw. But there has to be something else for the viewer to sink into, whether it's the flow and frenzy of everyday life or the psychological contours of individuals and relationships. Despite Weitz's sensitive direction and a superb cast €" including Frankie Faison as Marian's patient husband, DeWanda Wise as Matt's patient love interest and Paul Reiser as his patient boss €" Fatherhood can't quite deliver.

AO Scott c.2021 The New York Times Company

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