Please do not let the first line uttered in Fatherhood be an indication of the quality of the film. Those opening words are, “This sucks.” We will get into what is behind those words in a moment, but it is a jarring way to start a movie, particularly for me. I cannot think of too many Kevin Hart films I have enjoyed. He is one of those comedic actors that gets type cast. Hence, if you have seen him in one film, you have virtually seen them all. He screams at a high pitch, he says racially stereotyped things, and he has a false bravado that he plays up repeatedly. Still, I do not like to generalize, er, generally speaking. I appreciate Kevin Hart more as a person than anything else. It is in the roles where he behaves more like your average joe, albeit put in extraordinary circumstances, that I believe he does better. This is the case for The Upside (2017), the second film ever reviewed on The Legionnaire. The same holds true for today’s movie, Fatherhood.
The reason why Matt Logelin (Kevin Hart) is saying this downer of an opener is because his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), has passed away shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Maddy (Melody Hurd). Matt is devastated, and everyone around him, including his in-laws, Marion (Alfre Woodard) and Mike (Frankie Faison), and mom, Anna (Thedra Porter), believe he is ill-equipped to raise a child on his own. It bears noting here that from this point it could have turned slap-stick, with Matt getting into all kinds of messy situations with his trademark antics. Thankfully, it takes a much more subdued, yet still humorous approach to the experience of a single dad. He is able to balance a well-paying job with a tech company, with some welcome understanding from his boss Howard (Paul Reiser), and in the process beat the two-week deadline laid out by Marion. If after a fortnight he proved incapable of handling his parenting duties, he was to give Maddy over to hers and Mike’s care. Confirmation that Matt is doing something right comes in the form of his first check-up with the pediatrician, watched over by Marion. The doctor comments on how well Matt is doing given Maddy’s excellent health, to his overwhelming relief. We then jump ahead roughly eight years and we see Maddy as a somewhat precocious young girl attending St. Joseph’s Catholic School (yay!). One way we see her somewhat unconventional way of behaving is with her insistence on wearing pants when the school uniform calls for girls to wear skirts (sigh). It is also around this time that Matt’s friends decide to set him up with a new woman, who goes by Lizzie (DeWanda Wise). After he recovers from this initial shock, he begins to get to know her more, which also provides a hurdle to clear vis-à-vis Maddy. For so long it had been just the two of them, and he had built his whole world around her that he worried how she would handle a new person in it. Luckily, Lizzie is open to having a relationship with a single father. In order to ingratiate herself with Maddy, Lizzie asks Maddy to come up with a nickname for her upon their first meeting, and they land on “Swan.” They were pals from then on. It also makes Matt’s budding relationship with Lizzie easier, perhaps too easy. One day at school, Maddy is finally forced to wear a skirt, the result of repeated attempts by the school to get her father to comply with the dress code. While on the playground, the bullies that picked on her for wearing pants catch her while she is climbing the jungle gym. Their jeers cause her to fall and cut her head. While this goes on, Matt had been sleeping with Lizzie and misses the several calls from the school to tell him what happened to Maddy. And, of course, Maddy is taken to the same hospital to get stitches in which his wife died. For Matt, he feels like he let Maddy down and it is the first suggestion in a while that he is not cut out for fatherhood. He also decides to break things off with Lizzie, which, along with losing a necklace that had belonged to her mother, further angers Maddy. When Matt is asked by work to travel to Croatia for a month in order to expand their business, he decides to take Maddy to Marion and Mike’s. Seeing how happy she is there, staying in her mom’s old room, he then makes up his mind to leave her with his former in-laws. Still, it does not take long upon returning to his regular life for him to see how much he wants his daughter in his world. She misses him too, and close on the heels of their reunion, he makes amends with Lizzie. There is nothing that a little ice cream cannot fix.
I do not know if I would call Fatherhood an intentionally Catholic movie. At the same time, I doubt most of your baptized Catholics center their identity on their Faith. Both of these views are unfortunate, though it does make Faith all the more special. By all appearances, Matt and his wife came from Catholic backgrounds. Matt has Christened Maddy in a Catholic Church, and she attends a Catholic school. Yet, these are character features that are more like tidbits added in to flesh them out rather than their raison d’etre. This (sadly) typifies the majority of Catholics, and I daresay the bulk of those who call themselves Christian. If they go to Mass, or Sunday services, for many it is more out of some vague sense of obligation than obeying the Sabbath. Christianity is more than a cultural choice, like choosing what clothes to buy, or what band to follow. These are all exterior manifestations. What God desires, where God lives, is on the interior. Now, I am not here to say what is the right or wrong way to Christian, unless you are an atheist or living precisely contrary to the teaches. Outside of pre-marital sex with Lizzie, there is much to be praised about how Matt handles the raising of Maddy from a Christian perspective. At the same time, could it have been so hard to show them going to Mass together. They do not need to show them volunteering at the church, saying the Rosary together, or doing any of the other stereotypical activities expected of more serious-minded Catholics. Just go to Mass. I wish more Christians would simply start there, and be open to whatever God has in store for them next.
Mini-rant aside, I was pleasantly surprised by how good is Fatherhood. I could have done without how rigid the nuns at St. Joseph’s are about the dress code, but it all seems to work out in the end. There are other characters that I did not mention, like Jordan (Lil Rey Howery), who is ironically comic relief in a film with Kevin Hart in it. I did not mention him earlier because his character is just that, comic relief, and not essential to the plot. I also found his antics kind of annoying. On the whole, however, a solid, heart-filled movie.