Early in Fatherhood, someone gives unexpectedly single new father Matt (Kevin Hart) a piece of advice: A lot of parenting will involve accepting how many things are beyond his control. This undoubtedly true statement could have been learned from real-life parenting experience; it could just as easily be gleaned from almost any squishy dramedy that purports to convey those experiences. Just for novelty, wouldn’t it be satisfying to see a movie character offer the sage wisdom that parents can and should control everything about their child, and to cede any of that control is weakness?
Such messaging would be potentially lethal for a go-getter like Matt. When his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), dies shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Maddy (played by a series of babies that occasionally fluctuate in size and, later, by Melody Hurd), Matt is equally devastated by the loss and determined to do right by his baby girl. After a bizarre squabble with mother-in-law Marian (Alfre Woodard) over whether Matt should simply award Marian and his own mom joint custody of his daughter, he digs into tackling single fatherhood. Though Fatherhood is based on a memoir, Matt’s approach feels like it’s been reframed to fit Hart’s ethos of self-conscious hustle. Parenting becomes just another rise-and-grind challenge to prove the haters and doubters wrong. Just because he failed to assemble his daughter’s crib before she came home from the hospital doesn’t mean Maddy is doomed to a life of neglect!
There could be something to say here about how comically low society’s expectations for fathers remain. The movie also briefly, incisively captures the new-parent contradiction of desperately needing help while wanting to be left alone, free of unsolicited input. But director and co-writer Paul Weitz (About A Boy) keeps making odd choices for what, in a single father’s life, requires comic or dramatic emphasis. Money never appears to be a major issue for Matt, who works at some kind of tech firm in Boston, yet the movie barely even alludes to regular childcare, finally admitting during the last 10 minutes that, at some point, Maddie was enrolled at a daycare facility. Instead, the film invents mildly zany problems (how to get baby Maddy to fall asleep at her dad’s office) and shrugs its way through various solutions (white noise cures her colic!).
Through it all, Matt is loath to rely on anyone else—except, of course, his designated two best friends, Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan), who are always around for a smidge of emotional support and perhaps three smidges of comic relief. It’s rarely a good sign when a comedy has designated comic-relief characters, but that’s the kind of sorta-comedy Fatherhood is; any fully developed set piece might interfere with its commitment to maudlin-preparedness. Hart himself has a few funny moments, like his desperate pleas to a support group composed entirely of moms, but he’s done stand-up routines with spikier, less sentimentalized observations about dad stuff.
Fatherhood clearly has more on its mind than mere, lowly comedy, and at first Weitz seems to be steering it in a slightly more impressionistic direction: It opens at Liz’s funeral before jumping around in time, to the post-funeral reception, back to Maddy’s birth, forward to the reception, back to Liz’s death. These scenes don’t build up enough steam to qualify as powerful, exactly, but they do suggest the disorienting nature of both grief and brand-new parenthood. (The brief passage also feels more intuitive with its editing than the recent Our Friend, which went all-in on the scrambled chronology.) When the movie becomes more linear, it also starts to play like an overview of anodyne baby-gear anecdotes—folding up the stroller, clicking in the carseat, screwing together that damn crib—before a time jump elides toddlerhood. Notably, the source material covers Maddy’s first year plus flashbacks, and presumably does not whoosh forward to kindergarten halfway through.
Little of interest awaits in Maddy’s elementary years. Is Matt capable of opening up his cloistered life as Maddy’s dad when he meets a seemingly flawless woman nicknamed Swan (DeWanda Wise)? Will he navigate the impossible choice between a flexible, well-playing job and a somewhat less flexible, even-better-paying job? Will Hart ever stop martyring his character, whose only real fault is caring too much and blaming himself for every minor mishap? “Daddy issues” in storytelling usually refers to characters in drawn-out psychological conflict with their own fathers. Maybe there needs to be a new classification for onscreen dads whose superior dadness must be praised by everyone else in the movie.
Fatherhood does, thankfully, avoid the biggest possible melodramatic swings. By chronicling Maddy’s tussle with her school’s dress code and a scary but never life-threatening playground accident, it stays well within the bounds of parenting struggles that seem vital in the moment, then turn into funny anecdotes later on. Most of the time, the film forgets the second part.