The ongoing discourse around “cancel culture” is maddening for about a thousand reasons, but chief among them is a foundational belief that celebrity, once attained, should never be revoked and certainly never surrendered. That’s also the foundational belief on display in Netflix’s True Story, a limited drama series in which Kevin Hart at once plays to and against type as a colossal superstar willing to go to any lengths to maintain his status. While it wants to make deeper observations about family ties and how vulnerable they can make us, there’s nothing deep about True Story. There is, however, a cyclonic performance by Hart that makes for an interesting, if forgettable, test case for him exploring more dramatic roles.
Hart stars as The Kid, a superstar stand-up comedian on the precipice of even bigger stardom as his superhero movie, The Anti-Verse, creeps up on a billion-dollar box office total. He decides to celebrate the achievement with a homecoming show in Philadelphia, where he’s joined by his team: loyal manager Todd (Paul Adelstein), bodyguard Herschel (William Catlett), and Billie (Tawny Newsome), a burgeoning comedian biding her time as Kid’s ghostwriter. What’s intended as a victory lap turns into a slow-motion highway pileup thanks to Kid’s ne’er-do-well older brother, Carlton (Wesley Snipes, in top form), who shows up to continue their family tradition of Kid papering over his older brother’s many screw-ups.
Carlton urges Kid, against his better judgment, to ignore his newfound sobriety for a night of debauchery in their old stomping grounds. Kid, who’s still licking his wounds after a tabloid divorce, chats up an attractive woman only to wake up with no recollection of the evening or how the woman turned up dead from an overdose in his hotel room. Rather than making any of the more sensible decisions he could make, like calling an ambulance or at least his ride-or-die manager, Kid delegates the task of disappearing the body to Carlton. It’s a baffling decision, given that Carlton’s malign influence and penchant for pooch-screwing are the full extent of his character.
Enter Ari, a smarmy fixer and old friend of Carlton’s, who Billy Zane plays with a mustache-twirling verve not seen since he chased Jack and Rose into the freezing North Atlantic waters. He has a scheme in mind to get the body out of the hotel unseen, but somehow no one thinks to consider what the cost for such a favor might be to a multi-millionaire. And to say Kid is less-than-pleased upon receiving his invoice is an understatement. Suddenly he and Carlton are under pressure from Ari’s broader criminal network including his two brothers (John Ales and Chris Diamantopoulos), who like so many Hollywood toughs, are mostly defined by their nationality. (They’re Greek, for the record, not that it matters much.)
The hasty decision to send a Carlton to do a Kid’s job is meant to show how desperate Kid is to maintain the mega-stardom and wealth he’s achieved. That might work on a character level, but not as a plot point. Predictably, Carlton’s fix creates more problems than it solves and sets off a chain of events that would be a classic comedy of errors if not for the fact that everything is played deadly straight. With a half-day’s work, a competent screenwriter could turn True Story’s scripts into a macabre romp, à la Weekend At Bernie’s or an entry from the always distasteful “Oh no, the sex worker’s dead!” subgenre. The plot gets more ludicrous with each hiccup and complication, to the point that it swipes at unintentional comedy, which is clearly not the intended response to a show expressly designed to show off an actor’s dramatic chops.
And for what it’s worth, the dramatic chops are absolutely there. It’s easy to write off Hart’s performance as money for old rope considering his character is based on himself and the premise is semi-autobiographical, pulling from Hart’s own upbringing and fraught familial bonds. But Hart’s talent is not to be underestimated. Granted, he doesn’t appear to be lifting heavy in scenes where Kid snipes at his team or gets frustrated by the trappings of fame. But there are moments of brilliance that shine through, particularly when Hart is playing against Theo Rossi, who stars as a Kid superfan whose obsession is yet another fire for Kid to put out. A startling vulnerability seeps out of Hart at least once per episode, and anyone partial to Hart’s comedy might be pleasantly surprised to see what he’s able to do in a different type of role.
Snipes is also excellent, despite the fact that Carlton is either onscreen or lurking nearby at the moments when True Story becomes hilarious in spite of itself. In fact, the cast is solid all around, and would be better served by a different format. The plot plays out over the course of a few days in Philly, which means considerable padding has to be done to fill up an hour-long pilot and six half-hour episodes. The supporting characters wind up in limbo—the audience learns just enough about them to want developments and resolutions that never come. True Story would have probably been stronger had it been honed into a 90-minute movie, the kind of festival-circuit fare that proves irresistible to actors looking to diversify their résumés.
True Story, which was conceived by Narcos: Mexico creator Eric Newman, is quite watchable, but in the way nearly all half-hour dramas are watchable. Each episode ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger, and the momentum is hard to ignore even as the revelations and twists vacillate between the predictable and the highly contrived. But while True Story will be remembered as Hart’s first go at channeling the barely repressed rage in his stand-up comedy into a dramatic role, it won’t be remembered for much else.