We wouldn’t mind if every supporting actor role was a packed-to-the-rafters bit of controversy, but Kevin Hart’s True Story isn’t exactly winning plaudits for its depiction of a pernicious modern phenomenon, giving the comedian little room to play a kind of his-and-hers racist foil to his more overzealous lead character. Still, “True Story” is an impressive new entry in the steely-nickel epic — think an “I Saw the Light”-meets-Logan Lucky in black and white — that networks and streaming services are going full throttle with right now.
Hart is Rafi (aka Bird), a guy you have never met until soon after he steps into the documentary’s opening sequence, but that you are immediately inclined to connect with. The title is a name given to him in the docu-series Sirens of the Universe, a series that aired on National Geographic in 2016, the year before the film opened, which Hart is now bringing to Netflix.
When we first meet Rafi — described as the “darling of a mama” — he is high-strung and embittered after returning from an Afghanistan tour where he killed men on the battlefield but was late on some unexpected and deadly naptime care home calls. The revelation that this is the baby-faced male part of a biracial couple is the stuff that Hollywood loves best, a way of keeping audiences guessing as to whether the third wheel is too callous to be with the woman of his dreams.
Happily, Hart isn’t giving you that much room to connect. A wasted effort as well as an entitled dolt, Rafi’s character is the exact same person from multiple angles, sucking up to his boss (Natascha McElhone) as well as taking a paltry salary for his work on the 24-hour clock. And he’s a smug, sanctimonious cipher, too — clearly knowing the ins and outs of society (ludicrously, the sitcom by which he is referenced as a TV icon, Jimmy Foxx’s “In Living Color,” was released in 1994) but also cheerfully clueless.
Fortunately, Hart has a lot of the elements that would make him a delight, not least his stage presence and likability, which is perfect for the core of True Story. It is no more a piece of sociological history than The Decision is a sports history, and its meaning is less important than how it gets into your DNA.
Hart proves that he has neither histrionics nor dramatic chops, but gives us an experienced performer who is comfortable doing the right thing under stress. The man is warm and unfeeling, and he gets into your head. What he’s missing is the sort of actorly instincts necessary to really get out of your head. Hart’s charisma has a few great moments, as when he shows up for an audition tipsy and teetering on high-end footwear and makes room for a last-minute change in mind and body — throwing one up in an effort to be chosen.
Most of his scenes are relatively unexceptional. Rafi’s girlfriend, Lorraine (Emily Ratajkowski), who has come down with a nasty case of the evening sickness and abject grief, helps him put on his good boy-next-door face as much as he can and helps her navigate the horribly fake world he’s created. And he’s ably matched by an emotional core that is genuinely heartbreaking as the couple opens up to the documentary’s producer (Ty Burrell) about their struggles, the tensions that unfurl between them — and the monster of a man that he will, eventually, become.
Despite a bunch of shots that are too shot-reverse-shot, True Story makes no grand claims to be much more than an introduction to the world of Rafi and Lorraine, and many sequences feel dry, as though the filmmakers worried that viewers who hadn’t followed Hart for all his recent rants would not appreciate how strange he seems this time.
But if it’s clear from the start that Hart has little interest in subversively critiquing society’s shallow application of hierarchy on social media — “That might be true,” Rafi admits of his character’s digital name, “but it’s not everybody’s reality” — he is able to construct a believable, sympathetic character out of his questionable worldview. It’s a credit to the actor’s ability to play awkward yet actually human.