It’s a bit of an enduring conventional Hollywood wisdom: behind every good man hides a dead woman. “Fatherhood,” a new Netflix movie starring Kevin Hart, is his latest statement. A movie widower, especially with children, taps into an endless supply of audience sympathy, granting the benefit of the doubt far beyond what any woman can expect, no matter how generous or virtuous or overwhelmed with grief.
I’m not saying that Matt Logelin, the Minneapolis technician and Boston resident played by Hart, is anything other than the nice guy and conscientious dad that “Fatherhood” makes of him. The same goes for the real Matt Logelin, author of the memoir “Two Kisses for Maddy”, on which this film is based, directed by Paul Weitz from a screenplay he wrote with Dana Stevens. The problem is, Weitz, Stevens, and Hart are so eager to protect Matt from any hint of judgment or conflict that they’re about to deny him a personality.
It takes some effort to make Kevin Hart bland, and he’s sometimes allowed to bark sarcastically or show humor amid the all-too-easy tears, smiles, and jokes about how hard it is to build a cradle, install a car seat, unfold a stroller and change a diaper. When he’s brisk with his friends or irritable with his stepmom, everyone on both sides of the camera – and the screen – is quick to come up with excuses. After a while, this caring becomes indistinguishable from self-pity.
The story begins as Matt struggles to find his words at the funeral of his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), then looks back on the days leading up to the birth of their daughter, Maddy, and Liz’s death. The baby’s grandparents urge him to return to Minnesota, where they all live, but he insists on staying in Boston and raising Maddy on his own. He has two awkward friends, a bizarre coworker (Anthony Carrigan) and a clumsy Don Juan (Lil Rel Howery), who stay by their pal’s side and resist his sometimes cruel punches.
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One of Weitz’s strengths as a director – evident in “About a Boy,” “In Good Company,” and “Grandma” – is his knack for making cuteness interesting. He’s a sentimental dry-eyed man, gentle in his mockery and reluctant to point out bad guys. Everyone in this movie is decent, which is beautiful in its own way, but also mind-numbing. There is a murmur of tension between Matt and Liz’s mother, Marian (Alfre Woodard), a mostly unspoken story of mutual dislike that threatens to escalate into conflict.
Likewise, Matt and Maddy’s relationship – who halfway through the movie is suddenly 5 and played by the charming and mischievous Melody Hurd – is as smooth and tidy as freshly installed tile. There are invocations of the mess inherent in parenthood, but the spills are instantly mopped up.
Contrary to what the screenwriting manuals will tell you, the absence of dramatic conflict isn’t necessarily a flaw. But there has to be something else the viewer sinks 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 R. Faison as Marian’s patient husband, DeWanda Wise as Matt’s patient love interest, and Paul Reiser as patient boss – “Fatherhood” does. can’t quite keep its promises.
Classified PG-13. The humor of diapers. Duration: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Netflix.