A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2019

THE UPSIDE jjj
     

2019, PG-13, 125 mins.

 

Kevin Hart as Dell Scott  /  Bryan Cranston as Phillip Lacasse  /  Nicole Kidman as Yvonne  /  Julianna Margulies as Lily  /  Aja Naomi King as Latric

Directed by Neil Burger  /  Written by Jon Hartmere, based on the French film THE INTOUCHABLES by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache

 

 

 

There's not much of an - ahem! - upside to most movie remakes, seeing as far too many don't honor the original source material while simultaneously spinning it into fresh directions for a new audience.  

THE UPSIDE is the inevitable American remake of the 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, which was a huge financial success and critical and audience darling.  That film chronicled the true story of a wealthy and white quadriplegic and his black ex-con caregiver and ultimate BFF.  THE UPSIDE moves the narrative to America and replaces stars Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy with the unlikely tandem of Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, and even when this new iteration of the French film frequently struggles to find ways to expand and improve upon the original the tangible on-screen chemistry between its stars is what ultimately helps carry the film and make it engaging. 

Now, the notion of a paralyzed from the neck down billionaire being cared for by a street wise former criminal seems like the stuff of contrived TV sitcoms, and one easy criticism I have with THE UPSIDE is that it's as predictably soft-pedaled with the underlining material as I was expecting.  Nothing on display here is relatively deep and insightful, and despite some of the story's darker undercurrents, the film nevertheless aims for easygoing and digestible feel goodness.  The scripting itself is as paint-by-numbers and straightforward as it gets in terms of showcasing deeply damaged people from two different walks of life unexpectedly coming together and learning to help one another in the process.  THE UPSIDE journeys from plot point to plot point with frank obviousness at times, but that doesn't mean that the film is not an involving watch, mostly because Cranston and Hart invest in their respective characters perhaps more so than what's on the page, and their dramatic authenticity helps make some of the script's more hard to swallow elements a bit more palatable.  

 

 

Cranston, it could be said, is one of the most underutilized actors in movies today, who showed what a uniquely tremendous talent and striking presence he was on TVs BREAKING BAD.  And maybe THE UPSIDE isn't the type of high pedigree material that's worthy of his skill set, but he's still quietly powerful while having the difficult performance challenge of playing someone that can't use any body language altogether (and as for the pre-release controversy of an able bodied actor like him playing a disabled character that should have gone to a disabled performer, I'm empathetic to such concerns, but side with Cranston in his opinion that actors are called upon to play all types of characters, so where do physical restrictions really start?).  He plays Phillip Lacasse, a ridiculously rich businessman and entrepreneur that became paralyzed after a horrific hang gliding accident.  His life is pretty complicated, though, outside of his obvious disability, so his secretary and loyal friend in Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) decides that he needs constant 24/7 attention that a caregiver would provide on a live-in basis.   

This brings us to Hart's penniless ex-con Dell Scott, who was just recently released from prison and has virtually no job prospects in sight.  His parole officer has instructed him to be more active in his search for employment, or risk getting sent back to prison.  Desperate to not journey back to the slammer, Dell begins looking for work, and by a complete misunderstanding and a rather frank discussion with Phillip himself in the job interview, he manages to get hired as his caregiver, much to Yvonne's chagrin.  Phillip sees it as a fairly good scenario, especially considering that he's borderline suicidal and finds the idea of a deeply unstable ex-con looking after him to be oddly desirable.  Dell, on the other hand, easily acclimates himself to his posh new room inside Phillip's lavish New York penthouse apartment, and the high paycheck doesn't hurt either.  But then when he quickly realizes that his job will involve feeding and bathing Phillip as well as nastier tasks like - yuck! - replacing his catheter daily, he sees how pathetically out of his element he is now.  Unavoidably, Dell's incompetence upsets Yvonne and she threatens termination early, but Phillip takes a liking to him and - wouldn't ya know it - the two become good bosom pals the longer they spend time together, albeit with multiple roadblocks along the way. 

Clearly, there's some readily evident co-dependency for these two lost souls.  Phillip has unlimited financial independence, but his chair physically imprisons him daily.  He needs someone to look after his every need, including bodily functions.  Dell, just having spent time in prison, is financially on shaky ground and needs his job tending to Phillip as a way to avoid more jail time.  Dell also has the added burden of being a largely absentee father and is struggling to make child support payments to his ex-wife.  Again, most of these story beats and arcs can been seen through to the final end credits from a proverbial mile away, but it's the themes that speak the most loudly here, especially how both Phillip and Dell begin to have a newfound appreciation for life through each other's company.  Dell is able to learn about the value of being a responsible adult and owning up to his family responsibilities (that, and he becomes an art and opera lover via Phillip), whereas Phillip begins to realize that his disability is not a death sentence and he just lets himself embrace life more (that, and he becomes a weed lover via Dell). 

As mentioned already, Cranston and Hart are not my initial and ideal choice of pairing for this kind of material, but they both work off of one another so fluently and with effortless camaraderie that it all but overrode my worries going into the film.  Cranston brings a soft spoken authority to Phillip while also making him a deeply melancholic and emotionally vulnerable figure, but Hart - amazingly enough - is the real performance surprise here, mostly because he has to temper down his usually loud/motormouthed schtick to deliver a fairly nuanced and understated dramatic performance.  It's quite refreshing to see Hart stretch himself a bit more out of his comfort zone, and part of what makes the odd couple comedy of THE UPSIDE endearing is seeing Cranston and Hart work together to make their characters' relationship - filled with both ups and downs - feel real and lived in.  They are so bloody charming together in even the most outlandish of situations that, with lesser actors at the helm, THE UPSIDE would have been a difficult slog to sit through. 

Neil Berger's (LIMITLESS and THE ILLUSIONIST) direction is fairly workmanlike; not flashy, but casually laid back to let the actors do most of the heavy lifting.  I only wished the script gave more attention to side characters, like Kidman's woefully underwritten secretary, who starts the film as a stern faced and unwavering prude and stickler for the rules that - gosh darn it! - takes a liking to Dell and welcomes him into the fold, despite hating him at first.  Considering an actress of Kidman's sizeable stature in the industry, it's a small shame that THE UPSIDE gives her a pretty one-note role.  Also, when it boils right down to it, the film seems a tad too long (it's two hours, but feels longer) and it's the second major release of the early film year this far - after ESCAPE PLAN - that uses a very unnecessary time jumping framing device.  And maybe, just maybe, if you've already seen THE INTOUCHABLES then you really don't need to see THE UPSIDE.  

However, I'm giving this Americanized iteration of the French film a passing grade, with reservations, seeing as it's far better acted and more involving than the usual crapfests that get dumped in cinemas to the filmgoing masses in January.  Plus, Cranston and Hart are so thanklessly good here that their performances deserve to be seen, leaving at least a few upsides to partaking in this remake. 

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