2.5 stars (out of 4)
The backstory is infinitely more fascinating than the story itself. The Upside had its world premiere on a Sunday night in early September at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Stars Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman took the stage inside the prestigious Roy Thompson Hall to help introduce it. A surefire crowd-pleaser featuring Cranston and Kevin Hart in outstretched roles, the film was considered an Oscar player as soon as the credits rolled. Just one problem: The Upside was a Weinstein Company production.
Sixteen months later, this based-on-a-true-story — an Americanized version of the runaway French smash The Intouchables — is getting its moment in the sun. That is, if you consider the scrap-heap release month of January as the sun. Now everybody can watch what I watched on that warm evening back when Harvey Weinstein was still considered a formidable movie honcho. Get ready, people, and settle in for . . . a perfectly adequate trifle.
Their bond transcends race and class. Phil (Cranston) is an ultra-wealthy author and financier living in a penthouse on New York City’s Upper East Side. A long-ago hang-gliding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, and now he needs a new live-in caretaker to feed him and get him in and out of bed and so on. What Phil wants, though, is an end to his life. His devoted assistant Yvonne (Kidman, working hard in a thankless role) sets up the requisite interviews. And much to her dismay, he chooses Dell (Hart), a vulgar, divorced dad and ex-con and who eyes the gig so he can get his parole officer off his back. He’s totally unqualified and emotionally detached. Perfect.
Enter the joie de vivre. Dell and Phil start an unlikely bond as they learn to appreciate each other’s divergent personalities and interests. Dell is a street-smart, call-it-as-you-see-it presence, mocking Phil’s high-brow tastes and grumbling complaints. He refers to Yvonne as his “boo.” He encourages Phil to loosen up, getting him high and stashing the wheelchair in the backseat of one of his sports cars so the two can race down New York City’s streets. He forces Phil to call the woman with whom he’s been corresponding love letters and gets him an escort for the night. In turn, Phil introduces his employee to the opera music and fine art. He urges Dell to straighten out his finances and mend his broken relationships and see the world.
All of the above is played for jokey laughs and lazy sentiment. On the second viewing, I cringed when Hart turned up the volume on an Aretha Franklin song so Phil could listen to music with a soul. A treacly scene in which Dell picks up his semi-estranged son from school in Phil’s Porsche so they can get ice cream does nothing to prove that he’s a stable father —only that money can buy happiness and bragging rights. The Upside circles twice to a gag in which police pull over Dell and question what he’s doing behind the wheel of a sports car. He fibs to them, yelling that Phil is having a seizure and needs to be rushed to the hospital.
The hijinks go down like warm honey as long as you don’t consider The Upside as any sort of authentic present-day statement on American racial dynamics. (The only line that sticks to the ribs is early on when Hart tells Cranston, “Your plantation is bananas.”) And true story aside, this is not a credible depiction of how to treat the disabled either; at least the ones that aren’t multi-millionaires with a highly compensated full-time staff. The narrative is simply too busy trying to extract laughs and tears to squeeze in complicated introspection.
Still, it’s difficult to argue with the affectionate bromance at its essence. Hart adheres closely to his comedy persona yet still shows gripping flashes of anger and frustration. The actor should show more of his range. Now that he’s not hosting the Oscars, I hope he’s spending the free time perusing quality projects to further illustrate that he’s capable of more than cheap laughs. Cranston can only move his face and neck, but he plays the part with a mischievous glint in his eye. Together, these stars keep their flawed comedy afloat. For all this film’s on-and-off-screen issues, seeing their chemistry on display is the only true upside.
The Upside opens in theaters on Friday, January 11