Film Review – The Upside
Two people from different worlds. One is black from the inner city, trying to make ends meet so he can support his family. The other is white, wealthy, and who suffers from a physical ailment that not only restricts his body but torments his soul. This is a classic set up for your usual feel good film, and for the most part The Upside (2019) does just that. When it comes to a January release, this isn’t terrible – it has just enough heart mixed with the right amount of humor to accomplish its sought-out goals. It has plenty of problems, but hey, you could do a lot worse.
This is a remake of the French film, The Intouchables (2011). Both play out in the same way, and the latter borrows a number of the same dialogue and jokes. But like most remakes, The Upside pales in comparison with the original. The Intouchables was a massive hit in its native country, and a lot of that has to do with the performances. Francois Cluzet was very good as the wealthy quadriplegic, but it was Omar Sy’s star-making performance that was truly special. He had the right amount of dramatic heft and charm to command the screen. Sy was so convincing that he forced the narrative – even for a moment – to rise above the problematic racial implications of a poor black man serving a rich white man.
The Upside doesn’t work nearly as well, partly because the chemistry between the two leads is not as strong as it was between Cluzet and Sy. Bryan Cranston is in his usual form, providing the best performance as the man confined to a wheelchair, having to be bathed, fed, and cleaned up after on a 24-hour basis. As the character of Phillip, Cranston does a good job of exuding the pain and depression of a person in his position. It’s not just because of his disability but the guilt he shoulders, feeling as though he has put this burden upon others, and because his past choices had an effect on his loved ones, especially his wife.
While Cranston works in his role, I’m not so sure Kevin Hart keeps up with him. This is the first time I’ve seen Hart in a more dramatic role (albeit still with some comedic flair) and I don’t know if he works as a good counter point to Cranston. Hart plays Dell, an ex-convict out on parole looking to get a stable job. He gets hired to be Phillip’s caretaker despite being the least qualified. Hart does what he can to play Dell, but the contrast between him and Cranston is noticeable. Where Cranston is playing a character outside of himself, Hart appears as though he is trying to break out of the same type of character he has played throughout his career. Dell’s growing interest in painting and opera comes off as unconvincing and contrived. His overreactions to Phillip’s lifestyle play like a slapstick routine.
I would be lying if I said that there weren’t some moments that worked between Phillip and Dell, but those happen despite their lack of chemistry, not because of it. Some of the funnier moments involve Cranston’s deadpan expressions to Hart’s antics, and instead of working against it he works with it. One memorable moment has Phillip selling one of Dell’s amateur paintings to an associate who mistakes it as the work of a master. But these examples are few and far between. Neil Burger’s direction and Jon Hartmere’s screenplay plays things straight down the line, recycling the odd couple tale with no unique perspective to give it some life. This isn’t always a bad thing, but as The Intouchables showed years ago, this could have been taken far beyond a conventional story.
Reading the last couple of paragraphs, it sounds like I’m being far more stern on The Upside than I really am. If you’re looking for something completely nice and unassuming then this is for you. I only sound the way I do because there was much more potential to dive into than what we ended up with. For instance, some of the supporting characters (particularly the females) had interesting foundations that aren’t explored far enough. Julianna Margulies shows up in a short scene as someone who has developed a connection with Phillip but faces a harsh dose of reality when she discovers his situation. An even bigger missed opportunity is Nicole Kidman’s Yvonne, Phillip’s assistant who appears to take her job a bit too seriously. Both Margulies and Kidman had room to grow, but the narrative never gave them that chance.
The Upside is not a bad a movie, but it’s not a particularly good one either. This is one of those pictures that you may watch during a flight or catch on TV while folding your laundry. It operates completely on the periphery and nothing more.