Kevin Hart is a single father raising his young daughter on his own in “Fatherhood,” and that simple pitch is enough to envision the high jinks on deck: diaper accidents, mishaps in the kitchen, pratfalls aplenty.
But “Fatherhood” is not that movie. Instead it is a sweet, tender film with laughs, yes, and even a diaper scene or two, but which favors heart over crassness and relatability over contrivance. Hart gives a performance that is notable for the way it strays from the Kevin Hart we’re used to seeing on screen, the manic, motormouth presence from films like “Ride Along,” “Central Intelligence” and “Night School.” This is Hart dialed down to a 2, and he finds the inner spirit of his character and becomes the soul of the film. It’s a reset for Hart, and it marks a promising new beginning for the actor-comedian.
Hart plays Matthew Logelin, whose wife Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) dies suddenly after giving birth to their daughter, Maddy. He is shocked and saddened by the loss, and we see him struggling for words at her funeral. He’s comforted by his pals Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan), who provide comic relief and attempt to lighten his emotional load. But Matthew doesn’t have a whole lot of time to grieve, as he now has a daughter to raise.
Matthew and Liz both moved to Boston from Minneapolis, and Liz’s parents (Alfre Woodard and Frankie Faison) encourage him to move back so he and Maddy can be close to family. And if he can’t make it, they’re fine to just take Maddy: they feel they can do a better job of raising him than he can, providing her with stability and structure that he can’t.
But Matthew is out to prove that he can do the job, and he does pretty good on his own. Maddy (played by Melody Hurd once she reaches school age) is a well-adjusted child by the time Matthew begins dating again, and she takes kindly to Lizzie (DeWanda Wise), his new girlfriend. But the pressures of a relationship and fatherhood, as well as a job (he works in the tech field) and the taunting Maddy faces from classmates — she wears pants to school, rather than the skirt the dress code requires, self-expression that’s encouraged by Matthew — all builds to a breaking point, and something has to give.
Director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) builds a credible world for Matthew and Maddy and makes viewers feel for his characters. The script by Weitz and Dana Stevens (based on the real life Matthew Logelin’s “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love”) focuses on the emotional weight of parenthood, feelings of inadequacy and the constant struggle to do the right thing, rather than cliched situations or cheap laughs.
It’s sentimental but not sappy, with a strong, assured performance at its center. “Fatherhood” is a testament to fatherhood, held together with heart and by Hart.
Rated: PG-13 (for some strong language, and suggestive material)
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Streaming Friday on Netflix