In 2008, Matt Logelin lost his wife, Liz, to a pulmonary embolism shortly after she gave birth to their daughter, Maddy. His blog posts charting his grief and the baby’s growth caught on with the public and led to the 2011 bestseller “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love.” Now, as is standard procedure, that book has been lightly fictionalized into a movie, “Fatherhood,” starring Kevin Hart and premiering on Netflix. It’s a well-acted and earnest Hollywood canning of a moving and individualistic story. A TV series is probably next.
After building a career on raucous hit comedies, Hart strains to get serious but gets most of the way there. “Fatherhood” opens with a shell-shocked Matt at the funeral of Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) and then bounces back and forth in time, charting the birth and subsequent tragedy, the first months of struggle with infant Maddy, and, in the movie’s second half, their life together when Maddy is 7 and played by Melody Hurd, a born scene-stealer. That chronological mishmash takes a while to settle down, and the script, by director Paul Weitz and Dana Stevens, has trouble finding a groove between the strident comic byplay of Matt’s friends (Lil Rel Howery and Anthony Carrigan) and the more somber matters surrounding them.
When it does, “Fatherhood” becomes a slick but moving and sometimes funny account of the struggles of single dadhood, and the emotional and physical toll it takes on one mourning, unprepared man. “I’m a parent and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” Matt cries out at one point (to a nonplussed support group for new mothers), and Hart turns the bug-eyed comic exasperation that has brought him success into something more resonant than schtick.
Weitz made his name with the “American Pie” movies, but “About a Boy” proved he could skillfully work with real human emotions. “Fatherhood” isn’t as well-done as that 2002 hit — its sentiment too easily turns into sentimentality — but everyone involved believes in what they’re doing and the commitment comes across. The film’s ace in the hole is Alfre Woodard as Marian, Matt’s mother-in-law and a stern figure of judgment just waiting for the new father to drop the ball — or the baby. Woodard brings nuance and depth to a role that could easily be villainized; manipulative as she can be, we never doubt Marian’s love and concern. Frankie Faison as her husband and Thedra Porter as Matt’s mother have less to do, but in general everyone rises to the bar Woodard sets.
That includes Paul Reiser as Matt’s boss, expertly toggling between mentor and friend, and especially DeWanda Wise, whose warmth and wit enliven the part of Matt’s love interest late in the film. All these actors help keep “Fatherhood” out of the greeting-card shallows it pulls toward throughout.
If anything, “Fatherhood” lacks a central conflict to serve as a dramatic motor. Crises at Matt’s office — how to pitch to clients with a colicky baby in one’s arms — are resolved quickly and cheerily, and the writing in the final act, with the growing Maddy beginning to separate from a father reluctant to let her go, feels contrived. The movie’s a pleasant but packaged affair, and that extends to the use of tourist Boston — the Public Garden, the Common, a flyover above the Zakim Bridge — as a background. (Most of the film was shot in Montreal.) Almost as generic as its title, “Fatherhood” is made real enough to matter by the strength of its performances and the sincerity of its makers.
Directed by Paul Weitz. Written by Weitz and Dana Stevens, based on a memoir by Matt Logelin. Starring Kevin Hart, Alfre Woodard. Available on Netflix. 109 minutes. PG-13 (strong language and suggestive material).