DIRECTED BY: NEIL BURGER/2019
For most people, The Upside will be a funny, inspirational look at how a con man takes the unlikely job helping a rich quadriplegic man, and how both individuals grow from the experience. While the cast, which includes Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman, put a lot into it and elevate it far beyond the troublesome screenplay by John Hartmere, The Upside is still a second rate film compared to its source material, 2011’s The Intouchables.
Kevin Hart attempts to stretch himself in a role where he plays Dell Scott, a man who has served time, but who still doesn’t understand what it means to think of others. His estranged ex-wife and son are struggling as they wait for any form of child support check to be provided by Dell as he plays the game of going to job interviews to get the necessary signatures for his parole officer, but never seriously wanting any of the jobs available. Facing heading back to jail, he goes to an interview for a janitor position at a posh 5th Avenue apartment building to get the last needed signature by the impending deadline.
When Dell arrives, he mistakenly gets in an elevator with what he believes to be another applicant, and is taken to the penthouse apartment of writer Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) who is looking for a “life auxiliary”, someone who can feed him, bathe him, change is catheter, drive him to appointments, and more. Tired of waiting, and having already stolen a rare copy of a book to give his son as a present, Dell busts in on the current interview Phillip is watching his executive assistant Yvonne Pendleton (Kidman) conduct. Phillip, who has seen every qualified candidate come in and treat him like a crippled charity case through their “professional” phrasing, and politically correct sentiments about his continued worth and value, is intrigued by the loud-mouthed, raw, and decidedly not-PC Dell who asks the quadriplegic-suffering man, to “sign” his form. Instead, Phillip, to the horror of Yvonne, offers Dell a job. He tells Dell to think it over and to come back tomorrow where he will either accept the job (Phillip does not tell him the pay or benefits), or get his signature. Seeing his continued failures with his ex-wife and son, and the type of jobs waiting for him in his old lifestyle, Dell takes the job.
It will be obvious where this is all going to go, especially if you saw The Intouchables, which The Upside is a nearly beat-for-beat copy of. The Americanized version of the French-film original too often plays into racial, and economic stereotypes to generate a laugh, and negatively reinforces the very things that Kevin Hart has been trying to bat down recently surrounding his dismissal from hosting the upcoming Academy Awards over past homophobic tweets. Here, an entire segment is played up where Dell has to reluctantly change the catheter of Phillip, which will require him to clinically touch the genitalia of Phillip. While this would obviously be difficult for a non-professional like Dell to do this with no training or understanding, which can provide its own laughs due to the uncomfortable nature of what is involved, instead we get a forced comedic dialogue about Dell (i.e. Hart’s) being unable to even say the word “penis” as Cranston’s Phillip chides him. This gets eerily close to much of the tweeting controversy, and Hart’s indirect way of trying to deal with it. More importantly, the entire routine isn’t that funny. Despite being an obvious copy of The Intouchables, The Upside should have taken the time to have been less shallow with Dell’s portrayal given Omar Sy’s strong performance in the same role in the original film.
The cast is talented, but the script doesn’t delve deep enough into any of their characters to justify the cast that has been assembled. While Cranston works hard to capture the depth of playing a man who has lost his wife to cancer, and seen himself go from being a successful author who loves opera and para-gliding to a man fully dependent on the care of others to survive, the script only scratches the surface. The truly wasted talent of the entire film is Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman whose performances in this year’s Boy Erased, Big Little Lies, and Destroyer were all strong and should earn her another nomination for Boy Erased. Here, she is simply regulated to being the foil for Dell’s extremely un-PC antics, and the obvious, yet overlooked, love-interest for Phillip. She is talented enough to infuse some depth into an otherwise flatly-written character, but there are moments where you get a glimpse of where the script could have mined this for a deeper portrayal of Phillip’s healing.
Racial issues are addressed but the issue is largely sidestepped, as is the economic disparity issue that is front and center of these two-characters and the very different worlds they exist in within the same city. Stereotypes are front and center of every action of both Dell and Phillip, largely to set up the laughs, but again, the script missed a great chance to really address these issues head-on and even distinguish itself from The Intouchables, by changing the dynamic. Instead we see rich, white friends of Phillip talking to Dell and then joking how they are learning “what it means to be black”, keeping these two worlds separated. The thrust of the script is supposed to show both worlds as being in need of one another, so that there isn’t the disparities of rich vs. poor, black vs. white, or those challenges faced by people with disabilities.
While The Upside will satisfy the feel-good quota needed by most movie-goers to feel that the film was a good one, it is largely a wasted opportunity, and an un-necessary remake, justified simply for those who wish to avoid reading the French subtitles of the original. The cast tricks the audience into believing the script is much better than it is on the strength of their abilities alone, which will make the producers happy, but will show any discerning audience that any “upside” this film truly had the potential of reaching was short-changed by taking the easy way out in each and every narrative thread, embodying the very problem it makes in dealing with the issues of racial and economic disparity.