It's easy to see why Kevin Hart would want to make Fatherhood. After successfully stretching with a role in the semi-dramatic sleeper hit The Upside, he's probably eager to show audiences what else he can do. This movie was a good choice, because it's funny while also allowing Hart to have some deeper emotional scenes. He's opening a door here to more career exploration in the future.

The movie is based on Matthew Logelin’s book Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love. Hart plays Matt, a loving husband whose wife dies shortly after giving birth to their daughter. Starting off on a sad note like this is unusual, but also powerful, as the star makes Matt's subsequent breakdown something that immediately earns our empathy. Now left a single father, Matt knows he really has to step up. His mother-in-law Marian (Alfre Woodard) doesn't think he's capable of doing it. She wants him to leave Boston and return to Minnesota with her, or at least give her custody of baby Maddy.

The first half of Fatherhood deals with Matt's attempts to figure out parenting. It observes a lot of the funny/frustrating aspects of having a baby, from dealing with colic to those unpredictable bouts of projectile vomiting infants are prone to have. Even though other movies have portrayed these challenges, any parent will still laugh or cringe with recognition. Getting support from best friend Jordan (Lil Rel Howery), Matt aims to prove Marian wrong, even as he's dealing with his own grief.

The second half jumps ahead a few years. Maddy (Melody Hurd) is now Kindergarten age. When Matt meets and falls for a new woman, Lizzie (DeWanda Wise), being a single dad suddenly has a whole new set of challenges. Having navigated his daughter's infancy, he struggles with wanting to pay attention to his adult life without neglecting Maddy. Meeting her needs and trying to solidify his relationship with Lizzie brings with it additional complications.

Fatherhood has its finger on an observant idea. Guys often feel like they have to be Superman for their families, and therefore become frustrated by their own shortcomings. Hart sells this notion with his alternately hilarious and vulnerable performance. Under his watch, Matt is a guy who thinks he needs to be perfect, knows all too well that he isn't, and grapples to reconcile those two things. Watching the contrast is meaningful. Scenes between Matt and Jordan or Lizzie offer the wild humor we expect from Kevin Hart. Scenes with Maddy, on the other hand, are more tender, as he works overtime to do the job of two parents, knowing that's borderline impossible.

Directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy), Fatherhood doesn't offer any new revelations about parenting, and the back-and-forth between comedy and sentimentality isn't always smooth. This is, however, a very sincere ode to people who -- for one reason or another -- have to do the parenting thing solo. It's got scenes that will make you laugh, scenes that tug at your heartstrings, and a performance that lets you see a new side of Kevin Hart's talent. The film wins you over with its good nature.

out of four

Fatherhood is rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.