I have to be honest, I didn’t know anything about the 2011 French hit “The Intouchables” until this weekend but I’m aware of it now and boy what a legacy it has. Of course, like most foreign hits Hollywood had to give it an American touch which is how we got “The Upside”, a remake based on the same real life story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo. With two capable performers at the helm, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, this film has gained quite a bit of steam over the past few days so of course I decided to see what all the fuss is about for myself. Is “The Upside” a great start for the normally cliché comedy genre in 2019 or does it prove once again that not all foreign films deserve the Hollywood treatment? Let’s take a closer look. This is my review of “The Upside”.
“The Upside” stars Kevin Hart as Dell Scott, an out of work recently released criminal looking for employment to restart his life. Dell’s job search leads him to stumble into the interviews for a caregiver for wealthy business investor Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). Phillip hires Dell despite having more experienced applicants seeking the position, which includes a hefty paycheck. As he adjusts to the position Dell finds himself at odds with Lacasse’s business and affairs manager Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). Despite the learning curve Dell starts to take his job seriously, bonding with Phillip while using his paychecks to help his son and ex-girlfriend. Dell and Phillip learn compassion and patience from each other as their individual demons surface and they each find new hope in a world they feel has left them behind.
“The Upside” depends heavily on the performance and charisma of its two leads, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. Both are accomplished actors in their own right but they come from different backgrounds and have utilized different acting styles in the past. That said, on paper it was hard for me to picture what this duo would be like together on screen for the first time. Turns out they’re great. Kevin Hart, who is usually a pretty annoying performer to me, is much more controlled yet still maintains the comedic edge he is most known for. Hart actually acts and shows, well, heart as a down-on-his-luck former criminal looking for a place where he belongs. Bryan Cranston’s Phillip is brought to life through the actor’s typically excellent show of emotion and charm being able to mix depression and self-loathing with a bit of humor and levity. It was honestly very surprising to me how well Hart and Cranston worked together. These two make an awesome pair and play off each other very well turning even the most childish of jokes into real laugh-out-loud moments. They both ooze charm while leveling out their characters with a layer of humanity most comedy’s wouldn’t even try to embrace. They are at once the heart and soul and the most hilarious parts of this film which is great because other than Nicole Kidman, whose talent is also far from wasted here, these are the two people we spend almost the entire film learning about and watching in one form or another.
But the balance of comedy and drama also shines outside of the main characters. The story tends to shift from a heartfelt conversation to a running gag time and time again. Normally this would create a nasty cocktail or tones but “The Upside” balances both its dramatic heft and its effective comedy quite well. I didn’t mind when a moment would shift from tragedy to humor, even all of a sudden, because it felt genuine. A lot of times it feels like our main characters are having something of a sibling rivalry, hating each other before realizing minutes later they’re both being foolish and agreeing to disagree. Eventually the film does delve into more cliché territory but for me the bulk of the first two acts not only showed us the best in the two leading men but also brought out a lot of the potential hidden within this story. It’s fun to see Dell as a fish out of water in a rich man’s home who took a job he was under-qualified for because he needed the money. It’s amusing to see a rich man who is introduced to the medical benefits of marijuana and when he nearly died only an hour or so earlier. I never saw the original film, but if the charm in that movie is as fun and infectious as this remake I can see why people love it so much.
I also appreciated that despite being primarily a comedy “The Upside” is willing to go to some pretty dark places. Both Dell and Phillip deal with their individual demons, but they’re ones we as viewers can understand. Dell is a criminal trying to escape a stigma but finds it hard to even allow himself a chance of normalcy. Phillip is a cripple with money and finds it hard to connect to people who want anything more than a donation. Phillip’s story is brought to a head in a very uncomfortable dinner scene that is, in my opinion, the most human moment in the entire picture where both Phillip and his guest have to come to grips with their own opinions of themselves, Phillip dealing with his inability to fit in as a cripple and his friend suddenly realizing how judgmental they are of those who are different. It’s a very deep message and things like this are scattered throughout “The Upside” which kept me invested and allowed me to feel for the characters and what they were going through. By the end of it all the movie is trying to tell us that not everyone’s problem is equal, whether it’s a rich cripple or a poor ex-criminal, and given a chance to communicate we can all find common ground. That’s a surprisingly deep moral for a comedy and one I can definitely respect.
However, “The Upside” suffers from some fatal flaws that keep it from reaching its full potential. Its most egregious sin is that it’s criminally cliché. While the story does pack some decent comedy and a lot of heart the narrative goes where every other comedy goes and by the final act you see the clichés coming a mile away. This is even more disappointing when you realize that for those unfamiliar with the original French film this is a pretty original idea and one that could have been completely overplayed but instead feels very controlled. It has the makings of a great dramady but that is spoiled by a heavy dependence of the same old story structure we’ve seen a million times if not more and a laundry list of must-have moments from both the drama and comedy genres that make “The Upside” painfully predictable. This is most distressing in the third act where the film rushes to a conclusion without even trying to add anything different into the mix. It’s like all the inspiration ended once a certain moment came into play and then the writers just decided to go the traditional route and avoid doing anything remotely original to wrap things up.
Then there’s the pacing, which is a bit odd if I’m to be honest. There are many filler scenes in this movie resulting in a somewhat bloated movie with fat that could have easily been cut out without negatively affecting the narrative. I also feel like “The Upside” tries a little too hard sometimes to force feed the relationship between Phillip and Dell when the natural charisma between Cranston and Hart is more than enough to get the job done. There was a lot I liked about “The Upside” but there’s plenty of room for improvement and I just feel like some areas could have been a little more inspired while others didn’t even need to be in the film at all. It would have made for a more concise and satisfying final product.
That said I did enjoy “The Upside”, but even an enjoyable film deserves criticism when it has this many flaws. I’ll give it this, the performances of the leads are great including being one of the very few movies I enjoy Kevin Hart in. There’s plenty of emotional depth and I did enjoy watching the story play out especially when the narrative seamlessly blended comedic levity with heartfelt drama and tension. I feel like its themes are noble ones that anyone can learn from regardless of what holds them back in life. However, with too much filler and a final act that leans more on clichés than the same originality and charm of the rest of the movie it’s hard for me to give “The Upside” too much credit. If nothing else it did inspire me to seek out the French original to compare the two and enjoy what many believe is a superior experience. But I wouldn’t mind seeing “The Upside” again anyway. It’s a decent dramady at best but one that gets the most out of its capable actors and does make a legitimate effort to utilize its unique real-life story to entertain and even teach viewers some valuable lessons along the way.