‘I’ ON CULTURE
When you have Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in a buddy comedy like The Upside, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, a lot. Not that there aren’t some good jokes and nice, feel-good moments in it, but it has an enormous flaw in that the premise does not really work.
It is based, at least somewhat, on a true story, one used already in the French hit film Les Intouchables. Its story of a wealthy crippled French aristocrat who has an Algerian caretaker won the hearts of many people. And it even works for the French, where the really wealthy have nothing at all to do with minorities. Here in the U.S., far too much seems improbable.
Phillip Lacasse (Cranston), having recently become a paraplegic, needs a full-time caregiver. But he wants one willing to let him die if his system collapses. He does not want resuscitation or anything like that. He feels he has nothing left; his wife has died and he feels lost. Who better to hire than an ex-con Dell (Hart), who lives hand to mouth and is a wise guy? This happens early in the film, and if you have actually been watching TV or movies in the past half century, you can start getting ready for those Hallmark moments. You know what I mean, the improbable buddy bonding moments that are all warm and fuzzy.
The filmmakers are smart enough not to make it quite that simple. There is a love triangle between Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) and stranger Lily (Julianna Margulies) with Phillip that starts late in the film and actually goes nowhere except to highlight Dell’s failure as a husband and father.
The real fun is supposed to happen in the culture clash between the two men. In the French film, it really worked. Here, Phillip exposes Dell to Puccini (actually one of the most melodic and easy-to-appreciate operatic composers), which is supposed to annoy Dell, but Dell reacts by playing Aretha Franklin. We are expected to believe that Phillip has no appreciation for soul music. Not knowing about Arabic music in France is one thing, but is there any adult in America who hasn’t heard Aretha? And then we have the lovely moment where Dell introduces Phillip to marijuana. Of course, a man living in Manhattan who went to college in the last half of the 20th century would have never touched weed, right? Things like this make the sweet moments seem off-kilter.
And we have at least a half dozen jokes about catheters. As someone who has spent time in a hospital using one, the number of funny jokes about them peaks out at one… and that might be high. But the film mines that fun for more than it’s worth.
There are some good jokes. Watching Dell change to being able to show his feelings with his own family is nice. And the sense of fun the two men can share is nice. I know I have been pretty negative, but this is not a really bad film. Just not particularly good.
Cranston is a superb actor with a mobile, expressive face. His reactions, of course, are muted since he can’t do body comedy. But he gets his laughs and is able to show that he is a real person, even with the limits placed on his acting. Hart underplays a lot of the broad comedy he usually enjoys, and that also works well. One reason he has his popularity is that he knows how far to go, and generally manages to play seemingly real characters. Aja Naomi King as his wife and Jahi Di’Allo Winston as his son are really good. Linking them to Dell’s changes was a good choice. Unfortunately, Kidman and Margulies really have nothing much to do and are wasted. Both are good actresses, and it looks like they were hired just to have their names on the marquee.
As noted, this is not a bad movie. There are some laughing moments and some touching ones, but not nearly as many as there might have been. America doesn’t have the caste barriers that France has. People frequently cross over. That is good for America, but not so good for this film.
Should you see it? Frankly, I would wait until it came available on demand, perhaps as part of the regular premium channels where you would not pay extra. Although, if you really like either of the actors, you might want to jump the line a bit.