THE UPSIDE (2019) – Review
Less than a couple of weeks into the new year and film fans have already been treated to a “prequel” (of sorts) with the early days “biopic” ON THE BASIS OF SEX. So, before the sequels and franchise installments begin rolling in, how about a “redo”. No, we’re not talking about a “reboot” or the popular movie-marketing concept, the “re-imagining”, much like THE PREDATOR from a few months ago. We’re talking about a way that Hollywood “recycled’ long before the ecology movement, in short, a good ole’ fashioned remake. Those films usually find their source material from previous studio films, like last year’s fourth (and very popular) version of A STAR IS BORN. But often the studios will look beyond their own library and a cast a net for stories from other lands, say France. In the late 1980s Disney helped establish their more adult division, Touchstone with smash English versions of BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING and THREE MEN AND A CRADLE, which you might know as DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS and THREE MEN AND A BABY (the former spawned a TV show, while they latter inspired a sequel). Now another studio, STX (which picked this up from the Weinstein Company for obvious reasons) has turned the international hit THE INTOUCHABLES into the new buddy “dramedy” THE UPSIDE.
This character study oddly begins with a high-speed romp through the streets of the Big Apple. At the wheel of the high priced and powered sports car is an African-American man in his thirties named Dell (Kevin Hart), his passenger, a white man a couple of decades older is Phillip (Bryan Cranston). When New York’s finest finally catches up to them, Dell explains that they’re on the way to the hospital as he points out the folded up wheelchair in the back seat. So how did these two meet requires a six-month flashback? Dell is newly paroled and looking for work. No takers, so he’s content to collect signatures on his job search form. But he’s got to provide for his estranged “baby mama” and his twelve-year-old-son, who’s on the same path as his papa. One fateful day, Dell reports to a swanky apartment building, thinking he’s applying for a janitorial position. Up in the penthouse floor(?), he’s stunned to see several applicants in their “Sunday best” (suits, ties, etc,). Dell soon grows impatient and bursts into an interview, pleading for a signature for his required form. There he meets the quadriplegic best selling author and financial guru Phillip. His executive aide Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is shocked at his demeanor, explaining that the job is “life auxiliary”, a caregiver to Phillip, who tells Dell to return tomorrow morning for the signature. The next day, Dell shows up and is told by Yvonne that he’s been hired on a “trial” basis (“three strikes and you’re out”) because somehow Phillip is taken with his crude brashness. Over the next few months, Dell helps Phillip enjoy life again, while Phillip introduces Dell to high culture and advises him on building a career. But can class and racial barriers erode between these very different men? Could they even become…friends?
The role of Dell could be seen as a big turning point in the ever-expanding roster of film roles from the prolific Mr. Hart. It’s not merely a rehash of his usual, and often tiresome hyper-manic blustery “child-man”. While it would be easy to say something about discovering “decaf”, this may be a real case of a performer trying to get out of his “comfort zone” and test the “dramatic waters”. Sure, there’s still that “rat-a-tat” punchline delivery, but Dell is more of a real human being, full of regrets over his past while being fearful for his and his family’s (particularly his pre-teen son) future. Some scenes are a bit mawkish and cloying, but Hart isn’t falling back on his time-tested audience-pleasing bits. It helps that he has an excellent screen partner in the always compelling Mr. Cranston. Though Phillip is often seen as a victim of fate and a magnet of sympathy, Cranston imbues him with an aristocratic dignity, with no patience for fools and “kiss-ups” (his disgust at the sycophantic job-seekers is priceles). But Cranston also shows us that Phillip’s can still feel joy, despite his “DNR” demands. Unfortunately, the two main actresses don’t fare nearly as well. Kidman plays the up-tight, button-down gal Friday complete with prim librarian glasses, who is the stern taskmaster to Dell, while barely masking her supressed passion for her boss. Of course, we get a variation of the cliche removing of the spectacles as she “busts a move” at a stuffy party made funky by Dell’s DJ skills. Then there’s the thankless role of Lily, Phillip’s “passion penpal” played by TV vet Julianna Marguiles. The character’s badly concieved, serving only to ignite a big third act conflict. Ms. M deserves better than this contrived “plot pusher”.
Director Neil Burger (DIVERGENT, LIMITLESS) makes excellent use of the NYC locales and keeps the bonding and “friendship funtime” montages to a minimum. And he does elicit excellent dramatic work from Hart. The screenplay adaptation from Jon Hartmere struggles to break free from some tired story tropes and turns. We get an endless riff of homoerotic panic from Dell as he must take care of Phillip’s “bizniz” on a morning when the nurse is tardy (really, no one went over this with him). Later on, Dell is quickly (too quickly, despite the “true story” title card) enamored of opera and in one ludicrous, painfull sequence he “conducts” several classical singers and musicians, echoing one of the “dates’ in PRETTY WOMAN. In many way, Phillip is a combination of that flick’s Richard Gere “John”, a fairy “godfather”, and the “white savior” that derails many a studio effort. But then Dell is another variation on “types”: the uncultured “free spirit” cutting through the BS (as in many Richard Pryor duds like THE TOY) and liberating the “stiff’ (here through lots of weed and …companionship, yes he’s a “pimpin’ pal”) and often venturing into the “magic N….” terrritory (BAGGER VANCE, GREEN MILE, etc.). And despite the “real events’ claim, the plot seems fair too predictable. GREEN BOOK proved that this type of “buddy flick” can be a “crowd pleaser’, but this one seems to have had all its rough edges smoothed away to facilitate a sweet fade-out. That may work for many, but for discerning cinefiles that doesn’t make THE UPSIDE an improvement over the across-the-pond original.
3 Out of 5