Even if it wasn’t a remake of the 2011 French hit The Intouchables, The Upside would still be a story that had been heard plenty of times before. This type of story about two socially, racially and economically different people finding friendship and common ground is a tale as old as cinema, and The Upside certainly doesn’t attempt to navigate around the cliches/tropes that have made this a reliable story to tell. But The Upside’s bland take on this tired idea makes it a mostly unremarkable addition in this tradition, a film whose release struggles are more interesting than the story at hand.
Originally screened at festivals in 2017, The Upside was formerly owned by The Weinstein Company and was shelved until now. Now, The Upside is finally being released in the wake of Kevin Hart’s unearthed homophobic tweets – particularly unfortunate, considering this film includes a sequence where Hart is outraged that his new job means touching another man’s penis when he has to change a catheter. Hart’s character even refuses to say the word “penis,” as if art is imitating life.
In The Upside, Hart is Dell Scott, a recent parolee attempting to find a job that’ll keep him out of jail. Dell accidentally finds himself applying to be the personal caretaker of rich quadriplegic Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). Phillip likes Dell because he’s unlike the other applicants, but he also believes Dell will likely go along with his Do Not Resuscitate order. After a troublesome training period, the two get along quite well. Dell shows Phillip the qualities of hot dogs and weed, while Phillip takes Dell to the opera and allows him to drive his garage of luxury automobiles. As is the usual case with these types of film, Dell and Phillip find exactly what each other needs in the most unexpected of places.
Directed with little visual style by Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) and written by Jon Hartmere, The Upside isn’t witty or funny enough as a comedy, and not impactful as a drama. Hartmere’s screenplay ignores racial implications of its premise, and instead introduces all sorts of side plots that either go nowhere, or abruptly end. For example, Phillip has been in a funk for years after losing his wife to cancer, but the film’s solution to this depression is fun activities, which apparently allow his pain to slip out of mind. For Dell, he’s trying to have a better relationship with his son, yet he accomplishes this simply by giving his child’s mother stacks of cash from his new job. There’s a potential emotional center to The Upside, but Hartmere/Burger sidestep it for the adventures of Phillip and Dell.
Yet it’s when this relationship is the focus of the story when The Upside does find its charm. Cranston and Hart together make for a nice pairing, and when the two of them are simply friends, The Upside finds its heart. Hart isn’t as manic as he is in his other roles, but always feels like he’s struggling to hold back his comedic instincts. But Hart makes the quieter moments work surprisingly well and shows some promise as an actor. Separate from Hart, Cranston only gets to shine in smaller moments, like when he goes out with a potential love interest. Still, with Hartmere’s screenplay avoiding Phillip’s larger problems, Cranston role isn’t given its full potential. Failed even more by the screenplay is Nicole Kidman in a thankless role as Phillip’s assistant, Yvonne. Kidman is lovely in the small role, but as the third wheel for much of the film, she’s given little to do.
The Upside is wishy-washy and clearly audience pleasing in a way that makes it unremarkable, but hard to hate. Hart and Cranston are amiable in their way, but it’s disappointing that this dynamic was put together in such a flaccid film. Thankfully, between the Hart controversy and the thematic similarity to another awfully boring friendship film, Green Book, the upside of The Upside is that it’ll likely fade into obscurity.