January 10, 2019
‘The Upside’ Review: A Shamelessly Calculated Drama Without Enough Heart or Bite
Movies like The Upside come package-wrapped, with a painful and unavoidable sense of over-familiarity. It seems to exist less as a natural combination of talent, than as a way for a studio to check off a series of boxes. Based on a true story? Check. Featuring a comedian in a somewhat dramatic role? Check. Depicting an endearing but unexpected core relationship? Check. Including mismatched characters who come to a mutual understanding of respect after strife? Check. And a remake of a well-liked French film? More of a trend from the 1980s, but still: check.
Kevin Hart stars as Dell, an ex-convict who’s not interested in getting steady employment, even though his parole officer is breathing down his neck about proof that he’s looking for work. So, almost by happenstance, he wanders into the opportunity of a lifetime: serving as the “life auxiliary” (AKA 24-hour carer) for Philip (Bryan Cranston), an exceptionally rich quadriplegic who’s tired of the fresh-faced, well-intentioned and technically, y’know, qualified applicants for the position. Dell, in spite of his disinterest, is offered the position and soon finds himself getting to know and truly care for Philip.
Based on The Intouchables (a film unseen by me, for context), The Upside is, inexplicably, mostly conflict-free. Its in medias res opening, in which Dell takes Philip in one of his many fancy sports cars (from the rich man’s life before a paragliding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down) on a nighttime joyride, suggests emotional trouble afoot. But most of The Upside is just Dell getting to know Philip and ingratiating himself into this man’s life with very little understanding of what makes him so charming to anyone. I could tell you that part of the problem is very recent, and based on current events; it is, in all honesty, more than a little awkward to watch an extended scene in which Dell acts disgusted at having to change Philip’s catheter, as Kevin Hart grapples (quite poorly and quite publicly) with the homophobic humor in his past stand-up.
But Hart’s personal issues of late only represent part of the problem. Dell, as written (in the script by Jon Hartmere), is often actively unlikable and selfish. When we first meet him, he’s getting chewed out by his ex and the mother of his smart but sullen son, with the implication being that Dell is a textbook version of a deadbeat dad. Then, Dell steals a first edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for his son, before realizing the error of his ways and halfheartedly trying to get the book back. Once that act of theft rears its ugly head and Philip learns what happened, it’s shrugged off. That shrug-off is the level of escalated conflict in The Upside. Things just seem to…happen throughout, without there being a sense of plot. As much as we may grasp why Dell becomes closer to Philip throughout the story, there’s no amount of heavy lifting Cranston can do to clarify why Dell charms Philip so much and so thoroughly.
The deadbeat-dad subplot aside, Hart feels at home in The Upside, even as the abrasive nature of Dell’s personality comes at odds with the rest of the film. It’s not exactly the level of outrageousness in Central Intelligence or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but Dell is a character tailor-made for a comedian who wants to dip his toes into the waters of drama to see what it feels like. Cranston is physically limited in his performance – Philip can only move his head and chin – and only ever seems to get invested in his role when it goes for a bit of emotion. (Though his innate comic timing serves him better than Hart, as he even manages to get chuckles out of a “That’s what she said” line.) Nicole Kidman shows up for a while, as Philip’s business associate, but her role requires her to look perplexed at Kevin Hart a lot, which only gives you so much room to work as an actor.
The Upside arrives at the end of a not-terribly-good PR week for Kevin Hart. (But hey, at least Ellen loved it.) As much as it would be tempting to say that the film fails to work specifically because of him and his public persona, that would be unfair to the film. Instead, it’s the lackadaisical script and sloppy direction by Neil Burger that render the film inert and lifeless. As is so often the case with dramedies aiming to be heartwarming, The Upside is a shamelessly calculated affair meant to wring laughter and tears in sometimes equal order. For a film about the power of the human spirit, it’s awfully robotic.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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