February 2020
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The Upside (2019)

DIRECTOR: Neil Burger

CAST: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman


The Upside is a serviceable but pedestrian remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was based on a true story (with characters’ names changed). Filmed in 2017, the film was left languishing on the shelves of The Weinstein Company after it became embroiled in the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal, until finally with STX Entertainment buying the rights, it has found its way into a theatrical release (ironically in the wake of another, smaller scandal involving star Kevin Hart’s dismissal as Oscar host after past homophobic tweets resurfaced). The behind-the-scenes turbulent journey to the screen might make a more interesting story than the movie itself. The Upside is a blandly “feel good”/buddy comedy-drama that offers nothing we haven’t seen before, and seen better, from various movies in this genre.

The premise sets up an unlikely meeting—and eventually an unlikely friendship—between two men who are about as far apart as it gets. Philip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is a quadriplegic billionaire, crippled by a paragliding accident. He lives in an exclusive Manhattan penthouse with every need catered to by a household staff supervised by his loyal right-hand woman Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), but he is paralyzed below the neck and moves via a wheelchair he drives by blowing into a tube. Depressed over his state, and additionally mourning the death of his beloved wife from cancer, he nurses a death wish. Meanwhile Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), a penniless ex-con, is desperately seeking employment to avoid going back to prison—a condition of parole—and find means to financially help his ex and young son. Through a series of miscommunication, Dell stumbles into the interview for Philip’s live-in full-time caretaker, mistakenly thinking he’s interviewing for a janitor. Yvonne is not impressed, but Philip likes the idea of having an incompetent caretaker (the better for something “unfortunate” to befall himself) and offers him the job on a whim, to Yvonne’s horror and Dell’s bewilderment. At first, this goes about as well as Yvonne expects, but since this is a “feel good” buddy movie, eventually an “odd couple” bond forms.

There’s not much to say about a movie like The Upside. Despite a squeamish sequence in which Dell tries to muster the nerve to change Philip’s catheter (played for laughs, and with the graphic details mercifully left offscreen), it soft peddles any dark or edgy aspects (despite Philip’s initial implied death wish) and is content to be a “safe” pedestrian little movie that follows the paint-by-numbers plot in generic fashion. There’s also a fair amount of padding; the scenes with Dell’s ex and son, while serving a narrative/character establishing purpose, are slow and too numerous and drag the movie to a halt; the movie is not especially long (just north of two hours, including end credits), but I found myself half-engaged and checking my phone more than once (not a good sign for how much a film is “grabbing” me). The movie is mildly enjoyable and inoffensive but also overly safe and pedestrian. Whether that’s because it’s a recycle of a previous film, or because screenwriter Jon Hartmere was leery of pushing any envelopes, the various aspects—Philip’s arc from depression to hopefulness, Dell becoming more responsible both as a caregiver and as a father, their “odd couple” bonding—feel half-baked and a little shallow, like a pilot episode of a television sitcom (not aided by Neil Burger’s pedestrian direction).

The acting is adequate but despite featuring a portrayal of a quadriplegic (the Oscars like those), there aren’t any nominations waiting in the wings. Probably the best performances comes from Bryan Cranston, who has already proven himself capable as both a comedic and dramatic actor and does a credible, if not exceptional, portrayal of a cultured, once-active man embittered by the cards life has dealt him. For his co-star Kevin Hart, this is an attempt to move into more subdued, somewhat more serious acting, but Hart is really more of a persona than a real actor, and sometimes it shows. Cranston is believably “in character” as Philip, but Dell feels less like a real character and more like Kevin Hart being slightly more subdued Kevin Hart. The chemistry between Cranston and Hart is adequate but their relationship lacks depth. The only other person with substantial screentime is Nicole Kidman (who’s been popping up a lot lately) in the less-than-challenging role of Philip’s uptight secretary who might have more than professional feelings toward her boss. Julianna Margulies makes a one-scene appearance as a pen pal of Philip’s who agrees to a face-to-face meeting and is predictably unprepared for what she finds.

A movie like The Upside is as undeserving of real scorn as it is unworthy of praise. Its milquetoast presentation doesn’t generate any such strong feelings one way or another. For those seeking something in its general vein, there’s better examples of movies with similar aspects.

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