Release: Friday, January 11, 2019
Written by: Jon Hartmere
Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Kevin Hart; Bryan Cranston; Nicole Kidman; Golshifteh Farahani
Distributor: STXfilms; Lantern Entertainment
I am an unapologetic fan of Kevin Hart. He’s the reason I stood in the line that never was for The Upside, an update of a hugely successful French film from 2011 that goes by several names: The Intouchables/Intouchables and Untouchable. Of course, the added bonus was Bryan Cranston starring opposite him and in the role that François Cluzet played in the original. I have to cop to my own ignorance here: I wasn’t even aware this was an American remake until I started seeing the vitriolic comments bemoaning Hollywood’s lack of imagination.
Well, in this case ignorance seems to be bliss with a capital B because while I laughed on a few occasions and generally enjoyed myself, in my heart of hearts I knew what I had just seen wasn’t very good. Yet since I have no reference here I really don’t know the scale of terribleness we are dealing with. (It should be noted that I have heard the name The Intouchables before, I just didn’t realize this film was a remake of that. Nor that the story was quite so universal — with Indian and Argentinian versions both released in 2016.) As a dramatic comedy based on true events, the American update neither packs a comedic nor dramatic punch — it’s a bowling lane with the safety barriers up, with the adapted screenplay by Jon Hartmere just reeking of unoriginality. Amiable, but safe.
Still, the upside here is I was right to use Kevin Hart as my motivation. He’s actually quite good, toning down his typically spasmodic antics to fit the part of Dell Scott (Omar Sy’s Driss Bassari in the French version), an ex-con who strikes up a most unlikely friendship with a wealthy aristocrat named Phillip Lecasse (Cranston), who has been left a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. This is a genuine performance from Hart, who begins the film needing three signatures from prospective employers to prove to his parole officer he is making efforts to turn his life around.
Two are easily acquired with Dell making no attempt to conceal his lack of interest in actually getting hired, despite the fact his relationships with his son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and ex-girlfriend Latrice (Aja Naomi King) are in shambles. The third finds him “applying” for what he assumes is a janitorial position, albeit in the penthouse of a high rise deep in the heart of the city. Growing impatient while waiting to be seen by Phillip’s executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) — he’s supposed to pick up his son from school, you see — Dell jumps the line of interviewees and forces an awkward introduction, to which a wheelchair-bound Phillip responds positively, amused by his brashness. Dell’s got the job, if he wants it — this to the dismay of Yvonne who knows categorically this presently homeless man isn’t cut out for it.
The Upside is, presumably like its forebears, about breaking through those racial/economic barriers, crossing the street to see life from a different perspective. If the French film was criticized for handling such themes and ideas with kid gloves, The Upside is getting excoriated for bashing us over the head with them: THEMES! RECOGNIZE THEM! For Dell it is also a fight-or-flight situation as he soon learns that the position he’s ambivalent about accepting is about as far removed from the custodial arts as one can get. He’s to become a “life auxiliary,” a responsibility that will require round-the-clock care of Phillip, including daily catheterizing and other private matters. Initially he chafes against the strict rules governing his new role. Yet, the movie must continue on, in spite of Yvonne’s Three Strike rule.
Billed as the first true feel-good film of the New Year, The Upside is content with strolling down the most obvious, predictable avenues in all of Manhattan. There is nary a scene or character arc that surprises. Some of the writing is Razzie-worthy (Golshifteh Farahani being saddled with one of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve heard in this young year). Hart and Cranston are indeed the bright spots, while Kidman manages a level of empathy as the third-wheel who eventually warms up to Dell — his, shall we say untraditional approach to being a live-in caretaker proving to be more liberating to Phillip’s state of mind than could have ever been expected.
The Upside imparts wisdom that’s forgotten as soon as the credits roll, though I can’t quite bring myself to say I regret seeing this. Sometimes it’s the company we keep in these ultra-generic movies that can make a difference. And Hart and Cranston, who clearly enjoy one another’s company on set, make that difference here.
Moral of the Story: 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no getting around how disposable Neil Burger’s The Upside is, but I really liked how predictably good its leading men are. Needless to say, if you’ve seen the original version you probably will leave this thing rather exasperated.
Running Time: 126 mins.
Quoted: “I’m sorry you gotta have a surprise party in your huge mansion. Some of us have real problems. I’m fighting to see my son.”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com