The Upside appeals to mass audience erogenous zones (bankable star, humor, candy-coating issues), that’s unapologetically feel-good while offering award season relief.
Kevin Hart has had a rough 2019. He quit as the host of the Oscars. It has caused his reputation has taken a hit as well. He made insensitive comments he made, by his own admission, as a young comedian about the LGTB community. Whatever you think about him, he has proven to be an immensely talented comedian. A consistent box office draw (which is a rare thing nowadays) delivers consistent returns on the studio’s investments. The Upside was a chance to break away from a straight comedic role while playing a character with real-life motivations and human flaws. However, the controversy of past mistakes may overshadow the first step in a natural progression into the more serious fare, as with previous comedian’s filmographies like Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy.
Kevin Hart plays Dell, a fresh out of prison parolee struggling to be a father to his estranged son and an ex-wife looking for her bushel of missed child support payments. Dell, though, doesn’t seem concerned, not that he’s an optimist. It is there isn’t much point – no one is going to hire an ex-con. He practically falls face-first into a job offer when he originally walked into a wealthy New York residential highrise to interview as a janitor. He meets Phillip (played by Bryan Cranston), a wealthy business consultant who left a person with quadriplegia after an accident and is also a widower.
Neil Burger directed the Upside. It’s a remake of a French feel-good film, The Intouchable. It is based on the true story of the wealthy Corsican French businessman Phillippe Pozzo di Borgo and his French-Algerian caregiver Abdel Sellou. This version originally premiered at the TIFF in 2017 and has been stuck in Hollywood purgatory since being caught up in the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal. So, being unceremoniously dumped for a January release is like being tossed out with a Saturday morning news cycle. Along with the history of poor American remakes of French films, the bar has been set low.
The comedic drama doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to; it just must keep its head above water. The film delivers some solid laughs, largely resting on the unlikely buddy comedy chemistry of the two leads. Cranston has always had the innate ability to connect with his audience, with his plainspoken and endearing delivery. Hart’s role isn’t akin to breaking up dramatic roles like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting or Good Morning Vietnam. It’s a role that has him doing more than his usual running around performing his little-man shtick.
Sure, there are moments you see the Hart standard appeal. We also buy the fact that he is a down on his luck parent. He cares about his kid while trying to make ends meet; he is not at all out of place here. Kidman is saddled with the usual, thankless, adoring, and loyal good woman by his side role. The kind where you don’t doubt for a second where her true feelings lay.
The script for The Upside doesn’t delve too deeply into the reality of caregiving for a man who has lost feeling and use of everything below his neck. It is more concerned with aesthetics. Making you feel better about Cranston Phillip’s situation while caring about the outcome of his own limited outlook. After all, this isn’t aimed to be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is always more feel-good to be confined to a wheelchair with lots of money than showing someone confined to a chair with family members struggling to make ends meet. There is no need to show the struggle to pay endless hospital bills (which is always more profitable by Hollywood standards).
That, though, is why Burger’s film mildly works. It wants to be a feel-good film for mass audiences. The kind that wants to laugh and be moved at the film’s surface. It is a film that will not ask the audience to care too deeply, so they can forget about their own problems). The film never quite drags, moves briskly, has some solid laughs. This makes for an enjoyable outing, even if it delves into classic buddy-comedy clichés. Yes, it has been done before, it will be done again, and it is done well here. There is nothing wrong with being crowd-pleasing if a film knows what it is. And most importantly, it doesn’t pretend to be more than what it is.
The Upside has its flaws, but consumers will love it. Most critics will likely dismiss it (based on the current rotten tomatoes score of 39% versus the 83% audience satisfaction). Still, it’s a solid mainstream film that appeals to the mass audience’s erogenous zones. It has a bankable star and solid production value. The chemistry between the leads, comic relief, and a dramatic story without delving too deep are positives. I have a feeling it will be a larger hit than most January releases, and with all the controversy this film has had over the past year, we might see how resilient Kevin Hart’s fan base and career can be.