In December 2018, Kevin Hart landed himself in a maelstrom of negative PR that he just couldn’t make subside. Scoring the high-profile gig of Academy Awards telecast host placed him under a greater scrutiny, which led to the exhuming of a bitterly homophobic backlog from earlier in the decade, spanning tweets describing a guy’s photo as “a gay bill board [sic] for AIDS” and an extended run in his Seriously Funny standup special about how he’d try to “prevent” his own son from being gay. For all the furor these remarks provoked, the comedian was resolute in his refusal to own up to them, offering “I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can” as a halfhearted mea culpa in a 2015 Rolling Stone profile. As the controversy surrounding his selection as Oscars emcee rolled into its third day, Hart declared in a video that “I chose to pass, I passed on the apology” when the Academy requested a formal declaration of contrition. One month later, however, Hart’s agents got him in as Channing Tatum’s replacement on the in-development Fatherhood.
After exactly six premiere date postponements delaying the release over a year, during which Sony quietly pawned the distribution rights off on Netflix, that film arrives online this week. The adaptation of Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love seems to exist mostly for the purpose of serving the public an image of a softer, more caring Hart. Like the source book’s author, his character Matt must contend with the unimaginable hardship of losing his wife mere hours after she gave birth to their first child. While shouldering a deep and lasting grief, he takes it upon himself to keep doctor’s appointments and change the diapers and create a nurturing home for little Maddy. He’s not the perfect dad – though that’s true only in understandable, forgivable ways, like struggling to wrangle hair into braids or momentarily forgetting the carrier in a parking lot – but he’s doing his best to figure out this grand, scary adventure called parenthood.
That Hart would want to be portrayed as a kind, patient man at this particular juncture of his career makes sense, and his possible ulterior motives don’t even feel all that intrusive on the agreeably low-key melodrama, until that behind-the-scenes context crosses the line from canny casting to manipulation. While the memoir’s scope doesn’t extend past the newborn’s first year of life, the screen version time-jumps ahead to Maddy’s school-aged enrollment at a well-regarded Catholic academy. Having gained a sense of herself, she’s started experimenting with gender non-conforming behavior, insisting on underwear marketed to boys and wearing slacks for her school uniform instead of the young ladies’ mandated skirt. As Matt, Hart gets the chance to field this perfectly, so supportive and open-minded that he’ll even wear a skirt to a morning drop-off just to prove it to the nuns. This fake gesture scans as an effort to shift real-world perception of his celebrity, the A-lister vanity project (Hart also came on as a producer when he signed on the dotted line) elevated to the level of pure reputational rehab.
With anyone else in the lead, the paternal devotion would be an easier sell, and the film itself could be more innocently enjoyable. Paul Weitz, the director, exercises the same sense of relative restraint on the sap factor that brought his 2002 film About a Boy awards attention and a blockbusting box office, stopping short of any heavy-duty misery. Scenes of adults conversing about adult matters, the province of the quickly vanishing mid-budget star vehicle, play out believably and naturally. As Matt’s self-effacing work buddy and his possible re-entrée to the dating world, Anthony Carrigan and DeWanda Wise respectively lend a comfortable confidence to their stock roles. There’s an overall sturdiness to the construction rare among middlebrow family pictures, usually so quick to dissolve into a viscous mess of melted sugar.
Hart comports himself with a more dialed-back version of the jittery everyman affability he’s developed over decades in the comedy circuit, a schtick that reads as just that – a pose, a well-honed affectation. There is an immense and documentable falseness at the core of his performance that drags down the salvageable movie all around it, far from the redemption arc clincher his handlers may have had in mind. The opportunistic timing drains the soulfulness from his impression of a tolerant father figure, and even the charitable interpretation that he’s taken on this job as a step on the path to making good doesn’t ring true. Anyone familiar enough with Hart’s media missteps knows that an earnest, unequivocal sorry isn’t in his nature. As he declared just earlier this week in an interview with the Times that saw him denounce cancel culture: “If somebody has done something truly damaging then, absolutely, a consequence should be attached,” Hart said. “But when you just talk about … nonsense? When you’re talking, ‘Someone said! They need to be taken [down]!’ Shut the fuck up!”