Matt (Kevin Hart) is a dad. His wife, Liz, died after giving birth, and his mourning of her, coupled with the exhausting newness of parenthood gives the emotional mess Matt is in, an edge of desperation and humour. Even as the film is gilded in sadness it never indulges anger; all the characters in the film are propped by compassion, taking Matt’s heavyweight insults and indifferent eye rolls in their stride. There’s nothing and no one who is dispensable, even if they seem so.
The film is told in two parts. The first is the year following the birth of Kevin’s daughter, Maddy, and his coming to terms with Liz’s loss, and the general lack of faith everyone around him has about his parenting proclivities. The second part is a few years in, when Maddy (Melody Hurd) has grown older, and Kevin is finally giving in to the possibility of dating someone, and slowly like drip-feed injecting her into his cozy life with Maddy.
It is not just the temporal shift between the two halves of the film; there seems to be a tonal shift too. The first half is filled with scenes that have a rather abrupt quality, filled with moments that aren’t allowed to linger or spiral. There is a conscious attempt here to keep the story and characters contained, so even where there is potential for flare-ups, the muffled tension is sealed off with abrupt cut-tos. The scene in the hospital when Matt finds out about Liz’s death, for example, doesn’t let us linger beyond a second, just enough to register the death as a fact. It’s almost as if the whole first hour of the film is only a set-up, like photo frames in a house, just enough to have it registered in the story.
It is in the second half that the story springs to emotional heft, even if it is a little too surface-level and too obvious. Issues of gender identity are dealt with a casual hand — Maddy loves wearing pants instead of a skirt, prefers men’s underwear to that of women’s. Maddy is smart, and quick on the uptake. Her rage has a righteous quality that is different from the directionless violence we often see in kids her age — it is always targeted towards school bullies, or her father when he’s being unreasonable. The relationship the father-daughter share is shaped by the loss of Liz, and every scene has explicit reminders of her, her absence, and life being lived in her absence. The sweetness here almost jars, as if life hasn’t provided enough circumstances to make the grief feel less pungent over the years. Matt’s professional life has a watery quality that is too indistinct to mine for pathos or drama. Everything about it stinks of convenient narrative tricks to round it off with minimum fuss.
Based on Matthew Logelin’s memoir Two Kisses For Maddy: A Memoir Of Loss & Love, the film was initially supposed to star Channing Tatum. Logelin himself is a white man, and it is but natural to wonder what narrative shifts Kevin Hart, a black man, brought with him. There is a sweet scene where Matt is trying to comb Maddy’s hair, using his chin and elbows and everything he can muster to get it presentable for the nuns at her school. The film coalesces around blackness as a world unto itself — his best friend, his mother, his basketball buddies, his in-laws, his lover. Nothing seems gratuitous, even as the curiosity of translating a story of a white man for a black protagonist lingers.
There is a sweet circuitousness that the film tries to get a stab at. As a child when Maddy would cry for hours, unable to sleep, Matt would play white noise, sometimes the vacuum cleaner. As Maddy is old and with her grandparents for the summer, Matt is alone at home, unable to sleep. He switches on the vacuum and thuds onto the soft fabric of his bed, hoping it would stem the uneasy feeling inside. It does, sort of. Just enough to make us buy into it.