Fatherhood isn’t going to be remembered as a comedy classic, or much at all, but given its rocky road to release, it could have been much worse.
At this point, reiterating the havoc wrought upon theatrical distribution over the past 15 months is passé and redundant. But with seemingly every major studio forced to reassess the completed productions that sat idly on a shelf awaiting release during that time, what’s more interesting now is to see if it made sense to wait for those potential box office profits, or if it would have been more fiscally prudent to sell them off to a streaming network and make the money upfront. While a number of those choices seem logical in hindsight — films like The Lovebirds and Run were never going to be major moneymakers — new Kevin Hart dramedy Fatherhood is simultaneously the most obvious and the most baffling sale. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser starring one of the world’s biggest stars and directed by studio-comedy extraordinaire Paul Weitz, Fatherhood was tailor-made for the small screen yet brandishes enough bona fide credentials to all but guarantee a handsome profit in theaters. It’s enough to wonder what Sony was thinking. That’s not to say the movie is any sort of masterpiece, but it certainly isn’t the shit show that something like the dumped Infinite turned out to be, and given the state of society’s reopening at present, it has the look of an odd pivot.
A film that seems like it was lab-engineered to produce the right ratio of occasional smiles and gentle laughs from anyone who happens upon it, Fatherhood tells the story of a hesitant father, Matt (Hart), who is forced to raise his newborn daughter on his own after the sudden death of his wife. Devastated by the loss, Matt lacks confidence in his parenting skills, but is wholly emboldened by a desire to prove his caring but meddlesome mother-in-law (Alfre Woodard) wrong. Cue the sitcom-quality jokes that afflict every film in the single parent genre, including such hilarity as inferior diaper-changing skills, smeared poop, and a major work presentation interrupted by incessant crying. It’s fair at this point to assume that the story will continue in this manner until a lengthy courtroom trial in which the in-laws sue for custody before sappily wrapping up with hugs all around, but the movie actually pulls a Jersey Girl at the midway point and jumps ahead five years, as Matt tests the dating waters and has a sudden crisis of faith in his parenting abilities. In fact, somewhat oddly, Fatherhood seems so indebted to the framework of that 2004 Kevin Smith/Ben Affleck comedy that it comes as a bit of a shock to find out that the film is actually based on a true story, chronicled in Matthew Logelin’s Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love, which itself was born from a series of popular blogs written by Logelin detailing both his personal and paternal struggles. But while Fatherhood is not exactly a film that one would automatically label as realistic, Weitz and co-writer Dana Stevens infuse the material with a welcome sincerity and a handful of details that carry the ring of truth, from Matt’s use of a vacuum cleaner as white noise to calm a colicky baby to the tentative romantic relationship that develops between Matt and Swan (DeWanda Wise), a woman as patient as she is understanding of the scenario in which she finds herself.
It’s only when the movie finds it necessary to invent contrived and obvious plot twists that the story loses its way, with Matt making a choice near film’s end that is completely out of character and inorganic to everything that came before it, a pathetic attempt at Hollywood drama that is nothing but an arbitrary, easily surmountable hurdle to jump before the mandated happy ending. Hart delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career — if only by virtue of toning down the screaming schtick — and finds both the humanity and flaws within a character who could have easily been turned into a live-action cartoon by the actor’s usual instincts. That Weitz managed the same feat with Hugh Grant in 2002’s similarly themed About a Boy — a performance that proved the actor’s versatility and set him on the path to his later-stage career as a character actor — admittedly piques interest in Hart’s current interests and future projects. That Weitz wastes Lil Rel Howery in a thankless supporting role as Best Friend #1 is a less inspiring development here. Fatherhood will by no means be remembered as any kind of comedy classic —honestly, it will barely be remembered two days later, tops. But as a studio orphan finally seeing the light of day on small screens around the world — and considering the trash that has been unceremoniously dumped over to streamers over the past year-plus — it could have been so much worse.
You can stream Paul Weitz’s Fatherhood on Netflix beginning on June 18.