Films like The Upside certainly find their niche audience. Inspirational dramas are a dime a dozen, and Neil Burger’s latest offers up nothing new to the genre. At the core of The Upside, there is an unlikely friendship that forms. A grumpy man learns to become more positive and a criminal learns to integrate back into society. Thanks to its well-matched stars, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, The Upside isn’t atrocious. It’s watchable, despite some cliched story telling. However, this remake of the well-received French film The Intouchables, features a stunning lack of originality on its tried and true themes.
Based on a true story, Cranston plays Phil, a quadriplegic multi-millionaire who is cooped up in his New York City penthouse. Losing feeling in his legs and arms after a paragliding accident and coping with the loss of wife to cancer. When he decides to hire a life auxiliary, Dell (Hart) enters the picture. Everything progresses as you expect. Perhaps that is biggest downfall of the film. Dell is the least qualified candidate. A recently paroled convict who wanders from one banal job to the next collecting signatures. Dell seems to believe he’s capable of more than minimum wage jobs.
Dell ultimately accepts the job Phil and his executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) are offering after coming to terms with the fact the mother of his son (Aja Naomi King) doesn’t want him around. Latrice (King) doesn’t buy Dell’s ability to hold a job. There is nothing particularly painful to watch in the films first half hour. Hart, while still employing some of his comedy chops, is able to turn in a subtle and capable performance. It’s when Dell accepts the job that Hart’s performance begins to steer more towards his comedy.
Burger’s vision is often muddled, and tonally inconsistent. He doesn’t seem to have anything new to say with its themes of isolationism and acceptance, an unfortunate side effect of telling the same story again. Hart’s proclivity to do comedy bits as well he does, doesn’t fit the character at all. Overall, it just doesn’t become believable after a while. Dell is an ex-convict, and someone who at times seems to be able be sincere about his position in life. When Hart breaks into his stand-up persona, the film falters. It’s hard to buy into the fact that a supposed hardened street criminal is as quippy and witty as Hart. The tonal shifts wore on me quickly, and it ultimately becomes impossible to get on board with anything that’s happening on the dramatic side of things.
Hart and Cranston have good chemistry, and through all the films flaws seem to be doing their best to prop up a bad script. Writer Jon Hartmere’s script is schlocky, full of cringe inducing dialogue that seems to be plucked from the landmarks of the genre. His screenplay also gives a talented actress like Nicole Kidman nothing to do short of being a skeptical, stuffy white lady who has the fun brought out of her by someone who she would never choose to interact with. It’s a thankless role for an Academy Award winner.
Simply put, The Upside plays it safe. It is a nearly two hour exercise in the amount of tedious drama and manipulative heart string tugging one is willing to take. Often times the narrative doesn’t feel cohesive including a very confusingly edited scene featuring a date between Cranston and his pen pal played by The Good Wife’s Julianna Margulies that serves a spring board to the films inevitable dramatic fight between the two main characters. From there, The Upside is at its most cliched and hackneyed painting itself into a corner as the characters become much more stereotypical and caricatured int the films last half hour.
As time goes on, these drama’s get harder and harder to like. As I mentioned, there isn’t anything in The Upside particularly worthy to lambaste. It’s just the pure inauthentic characters who lie within these types of films that wear on an audience. It has cute moments that will certainly make you smile, if nothing else. There are moments when the film does offer some sincerity in its ideology. However, these moments are far too rare to truly recommend this film. It’s far too long for something that’s been done better a handful of times before. If this is Kevin Hart’s attempt to enter the world of dramatic acting, I’m afraid he missed the mark, and so does the film.
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