Directed by Neil Burger
Starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman
The ads for the local release of The Upside tout the fact that it ended Aquaman’s weeks-long reign at the top of the U.S. box office. Taking a look at The Upside’s quaint take on race relations, then pairing that with Green Book (which you will hear more about once it gets released here on February 6) and its surge as the frontrunner for the best picture prize at the Oscars, I have to wonder: Does America really need to be tutored again on how black people are people just like everybody else?
The Upside is a remake of Intouchables, and it hews very closely to the 2011 French hit’s crowd-pleasing formula. Bryan Cranston plays Philip LaCasse (even the surname sounds French), a wealthy quadriplegic who, along with the one-two punch of his wife dying from cancer, has seemingly lost all will to live. When his assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, in a role that barely allows her to act, much less stretch her comedic muscles) starts interviewing applicants for a caregiver spot, Philip selects Dell (Kevin Hart), a parolee trying to mend a fractured relationship with his ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and their son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Philip believes Dell is rough enough to fulfill his Do Not Resuscitate order in case his health takes a turn. Needless to say, after some fits and starts—including an overlong, excruciating comic bit that involves a catheter—the two soon develop a treacly bromance, and everyone is uplifted.
Cranston and Hart have an easy odd-couple chemistry that makes the material easy to digest. Hart gets to tamp down his frantic, motormouth persona and tackle a character with actual problems, while Cranston gets to display a twinkling comic sensibility that fans of Breaking Bad might not have realized he possessed. But that chemistry is actually part of The Upside’s problem. Once Jon Hartmere’s screenplay moves away from the interaction of its two lead actors, the film lurches from chuckling irreverence to dour realism; it’s a dissonance in tone that was also a flaw in the original film. This is probably the reason why director Neil Burger tries not to dwell too much on the world outside Philip’s cushy Manhattan penthouse, and why Cranston tries to overcompensate with his twinkle—he seems to enjoy goading his squeamish “life auxiliary” with repeated mentions of the word “penis”—to the point where you almost feel that, hey, quadriplegia ain’t so bad.
But The Upside’s weakness goes much deeper, down to a trafficking in comfortable stereotypes. The Upside feels like a throwback to the stale racial tropes of Driving Miss Daisy, in which two people from different ethnicities teach each other, you know, Important Life Lessons. Philip teaches Dell about kumquats, opera, and to be more cultured. (Because a black man with a prison record must be vulgar.) Dell teaches Philip about weed, Aretha Franklin, and to be less stuck up. (Because a white man who can’t move his arms and legs must be uppity.) In the process, this remake neglects to offer much insight into the plight of the physically challenged, or even scratch the surface of racial tensions in America. (It’s worth noting that France, which originated this supposedly true story, also has thorny race issues of its own.) The Upside just goes its merry way, giving you a few belly laughs and leaving its own potential in the dust.
Photographs from Pioneer Films