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A slick, astonishingly tone-deaf apologia for minor celebrity misbehavior in the era of cancel culture, Netflix’s True Story is the sort of project that, in a different age, would have been made as a 90-minute movie and given an out-of-competition slot at Sundance just to get star Kevin Hart on the festival red carpet.
Instead, True Story, which was created by Eric Newman (Narcos), is a padded seven-episode (eight, kinda, but the first two half-hour episodes have been squished into one busy premiere) series with not nearly enough twists and turns to justify a cynical, logic-defying finale unlikely to satisfy anybody.
Airdate: Wednesday, Nov. 24
Cast: Kevin Hart, Wesley Snipes, Tawny Newsome, Will Catlett, Paul Adelstein, Theo Rossi, Ash Santos, John Ales, Chris Diamantopoulos, Billy Zane, Lauren London
Creator: Eric Newman
What justifies the show’s existence is not the dark performance from Hart that you would call “a change of pace,” except that he’s playing a version of himself. Hart is fine, but the reason to watch the show is the reminder of how embarrassingly Hollywood has undervalued Wesley Snipes for nearly two decades. Every time my fatigue with the series’ self-aggrandizement was peaking, a scene or two driven by Snipes’ effortless cool and growing vulnerability kept me going.
Hart plays Kid, a rising comic star seemingly at the top of the world. His new superhero movie is nearing a billion dollars at the box office. A sold-out stand-up tour is about to kick off in his hometown, Philadelphia. Everywhere he goes, people love him.
Not everything is perfect for Kid, mind you. He’s a recovering addict going through a very public divorce, and any return to Philadelphia means a reunion with his older brother, Carlton (Snipes), who brings trouble and escalating debt with him wherever he goes. Fortunately, Kid’s powerhouse team — manager Todd (Paul Adelstein), bodyguard Herschel (Will Catlett) and punch-up writer Billie (Tawny Newsome) — is experienced at cleaning up his messes. Of course, when he wakes up after a night of partying next to a dead woman, Kid is in over his head. And that’s before his attempts to address the situation introduce slimy Greek fixer Ari (an amusingly hammy Billy Zane) and his psychotic brothers (John Ales and Chris Diamantopoulos). Philly gave Kid life, but will he be able to escape the City of Brotherly Love alive?
To be clear: Despite the title of this show, Kevin Hart has never woken up in bed next to a dead woman, at least so far as we know, but he is a Philadelphia-raised movie star and arena-packing stand-up comic whose older brother led a troubled life, leading to conflict between the pair (who have long since reconciled). Kid’s problematic tweets, which suggest a parallel to Hart’s social media record, are referenced by Carlton only in oblique terms, as a “Here’s the dinky stuff people get worked up over”-style contrast to the life-and-death stakes Kid now faces. The series is, in a sense, modeled after Martin Scorsese’s After Hours — if you stripped away all of that film’s narrative economy and were left with a lot of padded moping about the travails of living under a microscope.
It’s possible that Hart loves the myriad responsibilities of stardom — the annoying “team” conference calls, the banal interviews with radio DJs, the schedule-clogging photo shoots and preparatory busywork. Kid, however, hates them and whines about them for seven episodes. It’s also possible that Hart loves his fans and appreciates their devotion. Kid, however, absolutely thinks that fans are there to be unquestioning consumers, best seen through box office receipts. Fandom in True Story runs the gamut from nameless groupies (R.I.P.) to insatiable nuts (Theo Rossi, giving my second favorite performance in the show) to kids with cancer who have the decency to simply love Kid.
Remarkably, “fans” and “celebrity” still come off better in True Story than women do. While plot twists keep this from being a Very Bad Things-style story that reduces women to inconvenient corpses, the variations here range from women who want to sleep with Kid, women who have already slept with Kid, and Billie, who actually has a name, a personality and professional objectives, which may be why the show forgets about her for long stretches and can’t figure out how to make her relevant to this disturbing adventure.
But yes, being a celebrity is tough and we should all cut celebrities slack when they do little dumb things like make homophobic jokes on Twitter, because we don’t know what they’re dealing with in their lives.
If True Story has another theme, it relates to Carlton’s insecurity and his conviction that he was meant for bigger things but, instead, got stuck in Kid’s shadow. That’s a theme I can get behind because, however committed Hart is to Kid’s descent into self-inflicted misery, True Story comes to life only when Snipes is around.
There’s an alternative career path for Snipes in which Hollywood had encouraged him to follow in the dramatic vein of New Jack City, Jungle Fever and The Waterdance instead of trying with varying degrees of success to make him into an action star. Continuing a comeback that has included stealing every second of Coming 2 America and Dolemite Is My Name, Snipes finds the bleakest corners of Carlton’s wounded pride, while at the same time making him occasionally funny and frequently menacing. There’s a simmering, completely unforced tension anytime Snipes shares the screen with Catlett and Adelstein that’s more natural than any of the logic-defying contrivances driving the series.
If there’s anything true in this True Story, it’s Snipes’ ageless charisma and brooding panache. In a show about a fake star, he’s the real one.
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