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The Upside Movie Review

The Upside (2019) movie poster The Upside

Theatrical Release: January 11, 2019 / Running Time: 126 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Neil Burger / Writers: Jon Hartmere (screenplay); Ιric Toledano, Olivier Nakache (motion pictures Intouchables)

Cast: Kevin Hart (Dell Scott), Bryan Cranston (Phillip Lacasse), Nicole Kidman (Yvonne Pendleton), Aja Naomi King (Latrice), Jahi Di'allo Winston (Anthony), Genevieve Angelson (Jenny), Golshifteh Farahani (Maggie), Tate Donovan (Carter), Julianna Margulies (Lily Fields), Suzanne Savoy (Charlotte)


Released in its native France in 2011 and the US in 2012,
The Intouchables was the rare foreign film to become a phenomenon more on general public appreciation than critical admiration. Critics liked the film, which sits with a respectable 75% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the people all over the world loved it, powering it to a staggering global gross of over $425 million. Surprisingly, North America only contributed a scant $10 million to that haul, a fine gross for a foreign language film (31st highest of all time, in fact) that never expanded beyond 200 theaters, but a far cry from the impact of watershed imports such as Amelie and Like Water for Chocolate.

It's kind of strange that Intouchables wasn't bigger here. It was a feel-good crowdpleaser loaded with American music and references. Its broad appeal was probably a big reason American critics weren't bigger fans of it and why it got nothing from the Oscars and merely nominations from the Golden Globes and BAFTAs. Not as concerned about subtlety or craft, the general public continues to love Intouchables. It is currently ranked 40th among all movies on IMDb by its 8.5 user rating set by nearly a million registered votes. It also claims a rare full five-star rating on Amazon.

Now, designed to bridge the gap between the super high public opinion and the relatively low North American box office numbers is The Upside, an English language remake aimed at the largest audience imaginable. Like the original movie, this one tells the true story of an unlikely friendship of two men separated by race, class, and mobility. I'm tempted to put "true" in quotes because the real caregiver was Arabic yet changed to a Senegalese immigrant in the original. This time, the action is relocated from Paris to New York and that African character has been reimagined as African-American.

Patterning itself closely after the original, The Upside opens with life auxiliary Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) and his employer, quadriplegic billionaire Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), taking a nighttime joy ride that quickly puts the police on their trail. They get out of that pickle with some fast thinking and a little bit of seizure play-acting. Then, we jump back six months to see how these two came into each other's lives.

Ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) becomes an unlikely life auxiliary and best friend to quadriplegic billionaire Phillip Lacasse in "The Upside."

Dell is an ex-con, who served time in jail for theft. At the moment, he needs to collect three signatures to show his parole officer that he has truly been looking for work. He tries to get the third of those signatures at the luxurious Manhattan penthouse of Lacasse, where he thinks they are interviewing janitors. Underdressed and entirely unqualified for the actual job, Dell catches Phillip's eye with his candor and, against the recommendation of Phillip's trusted assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), he gets the job. No one expects Dell to last long in the position, and Phillip and Yvonne have agreed on a three strikes trial agreement in a belabored but befitting baseball analogy.

You needn't have seen the original film to know where this is going. Even if you missed the opening scene, a glimpse at that uplifting one-sheet should clue you in that despite their very different backgrounds, these two are destined for a great bond. After a shaky start -- a feeding in which yogurt gets everywhere and is ungingerly wiped, Dell stealing a signed first edition Mark Twain classic and gifting it to his son -- the two eventually come to complement one another. Phillip introduces Dell to opera and art. Dell teaches Phillip about Aretha Franklin and tries his hand at painting.

While the comedy in the original was not always the most sophisticated, The Upside does dumb things down a little, as in a prolonged scene in which Dell has to insert a catheter in Phillip and has to witness an inopportune erection instead. In his first produced feature screenplay, Jon Hartmere does not stray far from Ιric Toledano and Olivier Nakache's French script. Having revisited the original mere hours before seeing this, I did notice a private plane scene is dropped and so is Phillip's teenaged daughter, but almost nothing else is. The two still bond Cyrano de Bergerac style, with Dell teaching sad widower Phillip how to spice up his year-long epistolary relationship to a woman he hasn't seen from Dunkirk Buffalo. They get high together and make a hired symphony orchestra take requests. This being New York, there's also a scene in which a stoned Phillip orders fifteen hot dogs.

Phillip (Bryan Cranston) and Dell (Kevin Hart) share a moment in one of Phillip's fancy  cars with Dell's son Anthony (Jahi Di'allo Winston).

Opening in January and faithfully remaking a film that seemed to require the slight disconnect of subtitles to not be completely on the nose, I braced myself for the worst here. I knew that the film had been finished for over a year, having first screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. That delay was a direct result of The Weinstein Company's dissolution amidst Harvey Weinstein's loathsome misdeeds. More disconcerting was the first month of the year's history as studios' dumping ground, which overshadowed any love I held for the original. The remake's 3.5 out of 10 user rating on IMDb was another warning sign, though one that now seems chiefly a product of spite (how dare America try to remake such a great French film so soon?) and maybe somewhat
a result of the surprisingly palpable racism that seems to negatively affect black films' ratings in the otherwise valuable online database. I suspect critics who were measured in their endorsement of the original film are apt to be more disapproving of this version. Subtitles are not the enemy, after all, and, hot dog scene aside, The Upside doesn't really do anything its predecessor didn't and doesn't do anything better either.

Nonetheless, you really need not summon any outrage for this, for sacrilege has not been committed. If you're looking for a film with an offensively miscalculated tale of interracial friendship, you'll want this week's Golden Globe winner for Best Picture (Drama), Green Book, which can be found at some of the same multiplexes. The Intouchables reminded me less of problematic "white savior" tales and more of American buddy comedies, the critically reviled and absolutely brilliant 1995 Sinbad-Phil Hartman farce Houseguest most of all. (I'm not saying Toledano and Nakache saw and copied Houseguest, but a couple of moments are virtually the exact same as that undervalued Sinbad-on-the-run gem.)

The Upside is nowhere near as good, but it does join Houseguest in the rare class of "January movies I'll defend." I won't defend it strongly, because it's a middling effort, but it amuses more often than it doesn't. Hart has made bad comedies before, like About Last Night and Ride Along. Cranston has too in Why Him? with James Franco. While these two men won't be winning any awards for this collaboration, The Upside is too well-intentioned and good-natured to summon much negativity or vitriol for. Even the Internet's outrage over Cranston playing a quadriplegic character -- as if there were dozens of great, popular quadriplegic movie stars overlooked for the role -- seems pretty unnecessary. Detractors will use that same word to describe this remake, but there are worse movies that are more worthy of your consternation. One of them is winning major awards left and right at this very moment.

Related Reviews:
The Intouchables
Kevin Hart: Central Intelligence • Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle • Ride Along • About Last Night
Bryan Cranston: Why Him? • Last Flag Flying • Trumbo • Godzilla (2014) • The Infiltrator
Nicole Kidman: Boy Erased • The Paperboy • The Family Fang
Now in Theaters: Green Book • Mary Poppins Returns • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse • Stan & Ollie • Capernaum • If Beale Street Could Talk

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Reviewed January 10, 2019.

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