Even though the Netflix original comedy/drama “Fatherhood” begins with an unspeakable tragedy and features a number of emotional speed bumps and roadblocks along the way that will hit you straight in the heart, this isn’t the deepest of dead-parent movies and we’re never sucker-punched by any unexpected setback — so there’s something eventually soothing and uplifting about the experience. It’s as if the filmmakers huddled together and said: Let’s not kid ourselves, everyone knows where this story is going, so how about we don’t yank the audience this way and that?
I like the approach. With Kevin Hart delivering one of his more understated and authentic performances alongside a winning supporting cast of familiar character actors (and the adorable young actress playing Hart’s daughter) “Fatherhood” is a briskly paced, simply told, consistently sweet story about the obligatory man-child who must grow up quickly when his wife dies and he’s going to have to compartmentalize his grief because there’s a newborn whose entire world depends on him.
Based on the New York Times bestselling nonfiction book “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love” by Matthew Logelin and directed and co-written by the reliable veteran Paul Weitz (“American Pie,” “About A Boy,” “In Good Company”), “Fatherhood” is set in Boston (with Montreal standing in and not doing a very convincing job), where Hart’s Matt and Deborah Ayorinde’s Liz are about to welcome their first child. All goes well at first — but shortly after their little girl Maddy is born, Liz suffers complications and just like that, she’s gone.
Cue the scenes of the overwhelmed Matt changing diapers to the sound of “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa; bringing Baby Maddy to work, where Paul Reiser is the most understanding boss ever; enlisting the help of his best friends Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan) to sing lullabies to Maddy and cheer him up, and attending a parent support group where all the moms listen with empathy while Matt admits his shortcomings, including the inability to collapse that damn stroller! In the meantime, Matt’s well-intentioned but sometimes boundary-crossing mother-in-law Marion (the great Alfre Woodard) is lobbying for Matt and Maddy to move to Liz’s hometown of Minneapolis, because after all, there’s only so much one man can do.
For the second half of the film, we flash forward about eight years, with the sparkling presence of young Melody Hurd playing Maddy, who is whip-smart and self-sufficient and funny, and absolutely adores her dad. The dramatic stakes have lessened, even with the introduction of a new love interest for Kevin in the person of Swan (DeWanda Wise), who immediately connects with Maddy and puts up with Kevin’s inconsistencies and is going to be the best stepmom ever, we can just tell — unless Matt screws things up. Come on Matt! You got this, as they like to say in the movies.
It’s nice to see Hart in a role where the comedy is relatively low-key and dialogue-driven (though there are a few hilarious physical bits of humor). Every moment he and Melody Hurd are onscreen, we believe them as father and daughter, and though it’s such a damn shame Maddy will never know her biological mother and they’ll both always have that hole in their lives, we have a feeling they’ll be just fine in the long run.