It’s hard to feel sorry for a film this stale, cliché and predictably maudlin.
As flat, cheap, artificial, inconsequential, disposable and overly-sentimental as a Hallmark card your grandmother gives you for your birthday, The Upside is a new film marketed as “a comedic look” at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic man (Bryan Cranston) and an ex-convict (Kevin Hart) who is hired as his life auxiliary. The movie takes great care to remind you of these broad and thinly constructed character traits as often as they can. Cranston’s character, named Phillip, is bound to his wheelchair with the inability to move or feel anything below his neck, and his prosperity is always evident through the paintings lining his penthouse’s walls, the myriad of fancy cars in his garage and the $10,000 paychecks he mindlessly signs off to local charities. Hart’s character, Dell, gets the burden of more judgmental character design, as the movie takes great care to remind you frequently that the man was a convicted felon and is still struggling to be a presence in his teenage son’s life. Both characters are also kind of pricks, but we’ll get to that later.
Directed by Neil Burger, an aesthetically unoriginal gun-for-hire known for films like Limitless (2011) and Divergent (2014), and penned by first-time feature writer Jon Hartmere, The Upside is ultimately a movie that goes nowhere and has zero reason to exist. Based on a true story that was previously adapted as the 2011 French film Les Intouchables, this overly schmaltzy story has been on the shelf since 2017 due to mishaps with its production company (helmed by Harvey Weinstein – perhaps you’ve heard of him). It’s an unfortunate fate to be held by any artistic work, but it’s hard to feel sorry for a film this stale, cliché and predictably maudlin.
We’ve seen this all before. The grumpy side character (Nicole Kidman) who finally comes out of her shell on the dance floor and causes the protagonist to realize that their relationship may be something more than there originally appeared to be; the snobby neighbor (Tate Donovan) designed specifically to be an embodiment of privileged racism (“We all have to share this building,” he says to Phillip, trying to convince him that hiring an ex-convict was a horrible idea); and, of course, the unlikely friendship that occurs between two drastically different individuals.
The script juggles banality with expertise that’s almost admirable in how trite it ends up being, and it’s only elevated occasionally by the two lead actors’ charisma and chemistry. It’s hard not to crack a small smile when the two men smoke pot and then order 15 hotdogs at a local food joint, giggling with the chemical intoxication of a 13-year-old who just took his first hit of a bowl beneath the bleachers at school, but moments like these are far and few between. By the end of the film, they all amount to nothing, give or take a cheesy finale that finds our protagonists riding into the country together, paragliding against the backdrop of a green screen and making a drastically cheap and unfunny Hitler joke that feels so out of place and misguided that it’ll have you scratching your head with confusion.
So, let’s get back to these characters’ undeniably dickish qualities, which is used as the impetus for their relationship in the first place (Hart stumbles into an interview mistaking it for a janitor job, is super rude to Philip and inexplicably gets the job, presumably because Phillip admires his bluntness and asshole qualities). It’s hard to root for these characters at all considering these characteristics, and the film is constantly putting them in situations that are designed for the audience to either laugh at them or with them. There’s a scene filled with potty humor involving catheters, boners and Hart’s uncomfortableness in saying the word “penis,” so the movie seems perfect for an adolescent crowd (or at least those with juvenile taste). The definitive upside of The Upside is that it finally ends, but not before reminding us that “Phillip and Dell remain friends to this day.”
That’s great. Good for them. But bad for us, because their relationship means that this movie exists.