Less than two months after another film (Green Book) about a white savior and a magic black man who come together under unusual circumstances to set each other’s lives back on course, The Upside limps into theaters with almost an identical set of problems as the entertaining but rote Viggo Mortensen–Mahershala Ali awards bait film. While The Upside, like Green Book, boasts generally strong performances from its two charismatic leads–Kevin Hart acquits himself pretty nicely in his first major dramatic role–the work done by Hart and co-star Bryan Cranston cannot save a cliché, manipulative and ultimately shallow movie.
The Upside is based on the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which became a major cultural phenomenon in that country and was itself inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou. The former was a wealthy French businessman who was rendered quadriplegic in a paragliding accident. He then struck up an unexpected friendship with the Sellou, who was Borgo’s rather unconventional choice for a live-in caregiver considering he had no prior experience.
The Upside mostly follows the bones of The Intouchables, starting with a scene in which the two men–Cranston’s billionaire is now named Phillip Lacasse while Hart’s unemployed ex-con is called Dell Scott–are pursued by New York City cops as Dell races Phillip’s Maserati through the streets at high speed. The film then flashes back to the start of their relationship, with Dell arriving at Phillip’s luxurious Manhattan penthouse pad for the job interview with no intention of even getting the gig (he doesn’t even know what it is): he’s just there to get a signature on his job search sheet in order to avoid breaking parole.
Despite the misgivings of his loyal assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), the depressed, embittered Phillip is charmed by Dell’s street smarts and lack of bullshit and hires him, much to everyone’s surprise. Dell is unsure at first about taking the job, having zero idea of how to be a caregiver, but the satisfaction of handing his rather hefty first paycheck over to his ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and emotionally distant son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) gives him the incentive to continue.
Can you guess what happens next? Dell is the funny and unconventionally wise man of color who brings life, energy, and soul (represented here by the always welcome strains of Aretha Franklin) back to both Phillip and his entire staff, while Phillip introduces Dell to art, opera, culture, and his own brand of business savvy. The two men help pull each other out of their respective dead ends until, of course, the script (by Jon Hartmere) needs something to happen that will put them at odds and risk everything they’ve done for each other.
The first 45 minutes or so of The Upside are its best and most enjoyable. There are the expected laugh lines as Hart fumbles his way around Phillip’s life and apartment, but the actor smartly pulls back on his usual histrionics with a more modulated and sincere performance. I’m not a Hart fan, and yet found Dell to be mostly likable and empathetic as he and Phillip discover common ground (unfortunately, a badly conceived scene where Dell exhibits an inordinate amount of what amounts to gay panic over changing Phillip’s catheter–and even saying the word “penis”–couldn’t be more poorly timed for the actor as he struggles to prove he’s changed his attitudes toward the LGBTQ community in real life).
Cranston is also on point at first, able to say plenty with his eyes and expressions even when he’s not speaking. But the film skates over the issues it raises, such as race relations and how society treats the physically challenged among them, while padding its already long two hours with wheezing plot contrivances that undermine whatever character work the actors have done (while also wasting Kidman in a clear take-the-money-and-run role). Already flirting throughout its runtime with being maudlin, the film goes for full manipulation by its cheese-encrusted ending.
The Upside is directed by Neil Burger, who handles this with the same workmanlike style he brought to the screen with such generic offerings as Divergent and Limitless. He does shoot the hell out of Phillip’s lavish “plantation” (as Dell refers to it early on) and there are a handful of arresting images both in New York City and outside it. The Upside is clearly meant to be a crowdpleaser (hence the presence of Hart), and it may be an adequate timewaster for some audiences who can get by with the efforts by its two leads. But this otherwise predictable exercise has too many other downsides to keep us from recommending it.
The Upside opens in theaters on Friday, Jan. 11.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye