Present political climate not withstanding, we live in a fairly sophisticated society where we shouldn’t have to soft-pedal the truth about assisting the disabled via a movie with comedy, just to ease an audience’s discomfort. I’ve seen plenty of films that deal with the subject honestly, without feeling the need to turn away from or cover up the reality of the experience. For the most part, The Upside, the new film from director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent), comes at us in a straight-forward manner and allows its quadriplegic lead character a great deal of subtlety, dignity and sophistication. He is more than his condition and his emotions are considered without always being pandered to.
Based on the wildly popular 2011 French hit The Intouchables, The Upside takes the true-life story of a wealthy, older Frenchman and a young black man from the projects (played remarkably in the original by François Cluzet and Omar Sy, respectively) and transports things to New York City. Bryan Cranston plays the beyond-rich Phillip, who has a terrible parasailing accident that leaves him with use of his arms and legs, an event which might have been tolerable if he didn’t also immediately thereafter lose his wife to cancer, leaving him an empty shell and broken soul of a man. Nicole Kidman is on hand as Yvonne, who used to be his business partner but is now more of a personal assistant who seems to use the position as an excuse to watch over him and whoever they are about to hire as a full-time caretaker (aka Life Auxiliary).
In a far less manic state than I’ve ever seen him on screen, Kevin Hart plays Dell, an ex-con who is skating by on probation, pretending to look for work but really just trying to get signatures on a piece of paper saying he’s looking for work. He stumbles into the job interview process and intrigues Phillip because he’s in no way intimidated by his physical condition and emotional frailty. Dell is the least qualified candidate in terms of skills but the most capable of dealing with Phillip’s mood swings, and the interactions between Hart and Cranston are sometimes unsettling but genuinely funny.
Naturally, both men need backstories. Phillip’s we know, and Dell has a son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, from Proud Mary) and ex- who can’t stand him for very understandable reasons. This job is the first chance he’s had to make good in their eyes, and it’s a long, slow, uncertain process as Dell balances his desire to be a better person with his always falling short in everyone’s eyes. Much like its French counterpart, The Upside finds the humor in some of the situations the two men find themselves in—from Dell’s lack of experience and uneasiness about certain aspects of caregiving to Phillip’s uptight and slightly aloof mannerisms. And since this is a pure Hollywood film, naturally both men find ways to bring the best out in each other.
There are a few nice supporting roles, including Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson, About Elly) as Phillip’s physical trainer, Tate Donovan as Phillip’s vaguely racist neighbor, and Julianna Margulies as Lily, with whom Phillip is involved in a romantic pen-pal relationship that Dell pushes into an actual date, with unexpected consequences. In fact, the date sequence is a highlight of the film, which centers around pleasant conversation and the more awkward communication going on under the surface.
I found it bizarre the way Kidman’s Yvonne moves around the periphery of every shot she’s in, almost afraid of being looked at or noticed too directly. It’s a fascinating acting exercise that I think some people will see as being underused, but in a way, Yvonne wants to go unnoticed and perhaps even have the room feel emptier when she walks in it—not in a subservient way, but because she knows Phillip will get upset at the idea of her taking care of him. She’s in love with him, but is afraid to add that burden to the many he deals with a on a daily basis.
The problem with The Upside is that a great number of the comedy feels wedged in, rather than allowing it to rise up out of the situation. An extended sequence in which Dell must deal with Phillip’s catheter and subsequent spontaneous erection is about as low-brow as anything I’ve seen in the last year. I’m sure naughty chuckles will come from every audience that sees this movie, but it’s infantile. I’m certainly not advocating for a laugh-free movie—and, in fact, there are quite a few funny moments—but it feels like the filmmakers used a tire iron to get some of these jokes in, and when that’s the case, they generally don’t work.
There are lessons about opera, artistic expression, creativity, business planning and getting out of your own dark corners of self-loathing, and all of those conversations are infinitely more interesting when treated seriously through the filter of Hart’s comedic delivery. He and Cranston are a good team, and their chemistry is gratifying. Not that it should keep you from seeing it, but The Upside is a former Weinstein Company release (now presented by STX Films) that has been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, and I’m glad it is finally in theaters. It’s a pleasant enough distraction, but it’s also a disposable, early-January release that is not better than a slew of awards contenders in theaters now.
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