Just about the only irony to be found in Paul Weitz’s earnest and tender “Fatherhood” is that its story, about a single father’s extraordinary efforts to overcome his immaturity and selfishness to raise an infant after his wife’s death, plays so effortlessly on screen.
“Fatherhood” may offer pleasing platitudes and uncomplicated life lessons about trying hard, being present, and the healing power of love, but at least the film eschews cloying contrivances on its journey to big smiles and feel-good hugs.
Father-to-be Matt (Kevin Hart) is a well-intentioned and affable man whose tenuous grasp on responsibility doesn’t quite extend far enough to build the crib in time for the birth of his daughter, Maddy. When Matt’s wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde, “Them”), unexpectedly dies of a pulmonary embolism barely a day after giving birth, Matt has to quickly and simultaneously navigate the exhausting paths of grieving husband and single parent.
He’s not alone on the journey. He’s got a mother of his own, Anna (Thedra Porter, “Show Me a Hero”), and a mother-in-law, Marion (Alfre Woodard), who has no faith in him whatsoever. Consumed with her own grief, Marion is initially committed to forcing Matt to move back to Minnesota to be near her side of the family, partly to be closer to her granddaughter, but also because she’s convinced Matt isn’t up to the task of — oh, what’s the word — fatherhood.
Written by Weitz and Dana Stevens, “Fatherhood” is based on Matthew Logelin’s memoir “Two Kisses for Maddy,” about his experiences with the tragic death of his wife and the life-changing transformation into a full-time dad. And yet it still comes across as a relief when the film dodges an early bullet with “insufferability” written all over it: Marion forces Matt to promise that if he can’t be the caregiver his daughter, Maddy, needs, he will move them back to Minnesota.
Rather than revolve entirely around a contrived wager, Weitz’s film quickly abandons the cloying premise and simply allows Matt to be a decent, albeit inexperienced and frazzled, new father. He’s got a decent job and friends, played by Lil Rel Howery and Anthony Kerrigan (“Bill and Ted Face the Music”), who care enough to help him. If anything, it’s clear early on that while fatherhood may be difficult, Matt’s got a good heart and a strong support network, and he will figure it out sooner rather than later.
Weitz’s film presents the foibles of “Fatherhood” with a perfunctory sense of comfort, with no serious concern that the story will lead to ugly heartache or horrible tragedy. It’s a reassuring comedy and a light drama, anchored by a confidently laid-back and affable lead performance by Hart, who’s never better than when he’s given an opportunity take it down a notch. Freed from his usual responsibility of making immature material vaguely palatable, Hart settles into a kind and believable performance, buoyed by a genuine and even subtle understanding of trauma and grief.
It becomes clear early into “Fatherhood” that, although everyone Matt knows is eager to help him raise a baby, nobody in his circle has any meaningful experience with death. His friends try to change the subject, his family tries to shift his focus, and even his boss (Paul Reiser) awkwardly attempts to engage by comparing the death of a 99-year-old relative to the death of a spouse in the prime of her life. Matt’s genial nature thinly hides his emotional torment, and over the course of the film, Stevens’ and Weitz’s screenplay find smart and naturalistic ways to let Matt express, unconsciously, his deep-seated anxieties and self-criticism, stemming from the loneliness of his plight.
“Fatherhood” isn’t a flashy film. The cinematography by Tobias Datum (“French Exit”) is clean, clear, and calls little attention to itself. It’s a film that tries to comes across as naturalistic as possible, or at least a sanitized and uncomplicated impersonation of naturalism. The most powerful visual cue in the whole movie comes after Maddy injures herself on a playground, and the establishing shot reveals she’s been taken to the same hospital where her mother died. Matt doesn’t see this as a coincidence; he sees it as a potentially catastrophic omen, and the simple visual parallel between the two establishing shots of the hospital immediately convey that same fear to the audience.
The second half of “Fatherhood” finds Maddy grown up a bit, now played by Melody Hurd (“Them”), struggling a bit with gender identity as her uptight Catholic school demands she wear skirts instead of pants, and getting used to the idea that her father has met another nice woman who might be a new part of their lives. Lizzie Swan is the kind of ideal romantic partner that might seem eye-rollingly implausible were it not for the efforts of actor DeWanda Wise (Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It”), who makes Swan’s healthy outlook and emotional patience seem like hard-earned positive qualities of a healthy, real human being, instead of a feel-good, ultra-convenient new addition to a screenplay that really, really, really wants to get Matt and Maddy to a happy conclusion somehow.
Films like this are a tightrope walk, and a single misstep could have sent the film hurtling into depressing territory or clinging with bloody fingers to implausible cheeriness. It’s to the credit of Paul Weitz and his particularly endearing ensemble cast that “Fatherhood” makes it to the other side with only an occasional wobble. Perhaps a little too slight to be memorable in the long run, this sensitive and charming tale reassures without, somehow, completely ignoring reality.
“Fatherhood” premieres on Netflix June 18.