Dir: Paul Weitz. Starring: Kevin Hart, Melody Hurd, DeWanda Wise, Alfre Woodard, Lil Rel Howery, Paul Reiser, Frankie Faison. Cert 12, 110 mins
Kevin Hart is far too talented and successful to be complaining so much. Like Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais before him, the US comedian and actor has lately become more famous for rallying against apparent censorship in comedy than his actual comedy. Whether it’s in his interviews or his newest stand-up specials, Hart can be regularly found moaning about “the cancel culture” and what he allegedly can and can’t say. Fatherhood, his heartfelt new Netflix dramedy, is a reminder that, beyond all that off-camera noise, he is an expressive and compelling screen presence.
Reining himself in, Hart plays Matt, a widower forced to raise his newborn daughter alone after his wife dies shortly after giving birth. We follow him and young Maddy (mischievous, affecting newcomer Melody Hurd) over several years, with Matt navigating single parenthood, a hostile workplace and a sunny love interest named Liz (She’s Gotta Have It’s DeWanda Wise), who he is unsure whether or not to pursue.
For a while, Fatherhood spins through so many feckless-male child-rearing cliches that it’s as if Three Men and a Baby never happened. There is projectile vomit, a kooky babysitter, and poop joke after poop joke after poop joke.
But those early set pieces give way to a film more sensitive than it first lets on. Matt’s burgeoning relationship with Liz is appropriately unsteady despite Hart and Wise’s cute chemistry. His tense dynamic with his mother-in-law Marion also avoids pat explanations. As played by an empathetic Alfre Woodard, Marion is not a cartoonish harridan but somebody equally drowning in grief.
There’s something nicely restrained about the whole thing, with director Paul Weitz maintaining a consistent stream of gentle titters, if never massive guffaws. He’s one of those journeyman filmmakers without a distinct artistic signature, yet a handful of wonderful films to his name – the deceptively warm American Pie (1999), Tina Fey’s underrated college comedy Admission (2013), and the Hugh Grant vehicle About a Boy (2002).
His films typically embrace their lack of surprise, and gently meander to their inevitable conclusions. Transgressive they are not, but there’s a striking power to these kinds of movies anyway. Particularly at a time when low-key yet glossy stories about ordinary adults have become elusive. So it’s a credit to Hart that he used his significant industry clout to get Fatherhood made. He’s quite brilliant here: more deadpan than usual and comfortably holding his own against veterans like Woodard and Frankie Faison. If he ever stops whining about what he apparently can’t joke about anymore, it’s a mode he’d be smart to replicate.
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