Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to see Kevin Hart give a serious performance. There’s only so much of his usual comedic schtick (mostly the high-pitched screaming) that one can take before wondering about Hart’s versatility as an actor. So I was quite intrigued by his involvement in The Upside alongside Bryan Cranston, despite my obliviousness to the film’s status as a remake of the French drama The Intouchables. Though, in spite of Hollywood’s never-ending need to adapt every cinematic idea imaginable, The Upside has the distinct pleasure of being the third attempt at a remake of this story.
Then again, this film has seen something of a rocky development cycle. Alongside multiple director and actor changes, The Upside’s original release date was pushed back by the Weinstein Company after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse history was made public, keeping it in limbo for nearly two years. The new producers at STX Entertainment have understandably distanced themselves from Weinstein’s involvement, but the recent Twitter controversy that demoted Hart from hosting this year’s Oscars suggests that this film has some pretty bad timing. Still, the fact that I didn’t watch The Intouchables before The Upside let me enjoy the latter more than other critics. The same will likely apply to most American audiences.
Based on the true story of a quadriplegic billionaire’s friendship with his caretaker, The Upside doesn’t really change much in premise. Kevin Hart plays Dell Scott, an unemployed ex-convict who needs job signatures to ensure that he can remain on parole. By chance, one of the appointments he signs up for is an interview to assist Cranston’s Phillip Lacasse in his daily activities. Despite looking and acting less professional than any of the other employees in line, Dell’s attitude impresses Phillip enough (or at least makes him laugh more) to give him the job, much to the annoyance of his business manager Yvonne, played by Nicole Kidman. She’s technically the third biggest reoccurring character in this movie, but apart from a supposed romantic connection to Phillip, Kidman is mostly regulated to the background. Truthfully, someone of her acting prowess is overqualified to play a side character in a January movie like this one.
What’s undeniable is that, in adapting a foreign movie for Hollywood, you better expect some Hollywood clichés. And The Upside definitely has its share of clichés, usually towards the end when Dell and Phillip’s relationship falls apart. Surprisingly, however, one plot point involving a stolen book that I thought would instigate the fracture proved less consequential than was suggested. That’s not to say the plot is dull; on the contrary, there are pretty of funny scenes that got a number of laughs from the audience. One moment involving Dell working up the courage to replace Phillip’s bladder bag tube, or even say “penis” out loud, was a standout joke. It’s also a darkly ironic joke when you consider the subject matter surrounding Hart’s Twitter scandal.
The movie’s biggest selling point is Hart and Cranston’s chemistry, which I found just endearing enough to make something out of the cliched script. Kevin Hart is still funny, but it’s not the traditional bug-eyed and loud voice that we usually expect from him. He’s a lot more subdued and tragic here, a man trying to provide for his wife and son despite neither of them seeing him as a reliable figure in their family. It’s a solid dramatic performance, but Hart shines the most when paired alongside Cranston as the jokester and straight man. Any interactions or socio-economic themes concerning his family, class status or prison life, by comparison, just aren’t that important to the narrative.
I’d even argue that Cranston’s scenes display a better use of cinematic composition than Hart’s narrative. Confined to a wheelchair thanks to a paragliding incident gone horribly wrong, Phillip lacks any bodily movement beyond that of his hands and neck, with the camera constantly reinforcing this sense of isolation. With his face regulated to close-ups and POV observations of the human body, Cranston is constantly using his face to visually convey the pain and self-consciousness of someone whose money can’t cover the worst of injuries. He knows the world tries to avert eye contact with his body until they recognize his wealth and, until Dell came along, was perfectly willing to keep things that way. It’s a shame the remaining camerawork never feels as expressive as it does when showing Cranston “imprisoned” in the chair or his bed.
That’s the best way to describe The Upside: it’s a feel-good film whose serviceability hits all the necessary story beats. You can watch it and enjoy the funny moments shared between Hart and Cranston, but it never wants to go beyond a surface-level dynamic. You know how these two will react at first, how they will grow into one another, break apart and then patch things up by the end. I don’t need to watch The Intouchables to recognize a buddy film set-up when I see one. Hollywood practically invented that relationship.
Verdict: 2 out of 5 Stars
There’s definitely a Green Book-like vibe to The Upside: its lead performances provide weight to a cliché-ridden story that was evidently real. Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston are the two big selling points but, despite their best efforts, I can’t imagine this film standing out by the year’s end. Then again, the applause it received from my theater during the credits suggests a market exists for this type of story after all. Here’s to looking on the upside, I suppose.