Downside of ‘The Upside’ is lackluster script

by Kate Walz on January 11, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down] 

Critics can be snobs, and honestly, it’s something I find appealing about the gig. It’s fun to judge flicks and discuss artists’ mass appeal or navel-gazing self-indulgence and why it did (or didn’t) alter cinema history or culture as we know it. But movies aren’t just art, they are also commodities – designed to entertain people and allow them to enjoy two hours away from their real life (and generate a cash flow).

My critic brain sees a boatload of flaws in The Upside, a remake of a beloved 2011 French comedy called Les Intouchables.  The American version stars Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, and is directed by Neil Burger (also responsible for Divergent and Limitless). And while this is not a great movie – it’s intended to be a commodity, remaking a product for a slightly different consumer. From that perspective, there was a lot of laughter in the theater I was in. And though I am a snobby critic, that matters.

Cranston plays Phillip Lacasse, a very wealthy financial advisor, widower and quadriplegic. With the help of his executive assistant (Nicole Kidman, basically playing Pepper Potts, but with less sass), Phillip is trying to hire a new life auxiliary – someone to help him with the very basic tasks of life – like eating and getting in and out of his chair. During the interview process, Dell Scott (Hart) interrupts to get a signature for his parole officer, and offers something that none of the other candidates have offered – a straight forward lack of pity. So begins this telling of Pygmalion (the original story actually comes from the autobiography of the real Phillip – Phillippe Pozzo di Borgo).

Hart is out of his depth. The scenes where he seems the most comfortable allow him to do the kind of comedy he’s become known for. Unfortunately, the dramatic scenes are too much for him. He plays each scene like it’s the only one in the movie – there’s no understanding of context. For instance, there’s a scene where Phillip makes a request of Dell: play a specific song. Hart’s response is over the top and one note: No, I’m not in the mood, I can’t with that. And if that was the only thing happening, it would be appropriate and make sense and be the opportunity for humor. But the bigger context is that Dell is trying very hard to help Phillip after a particularly bad spell. So throwing a hissy fit over an opera song seems out of place.

But that’s not just Hart’s fault – that’s also the script. And there are more crimes than just that cringey (it’s a word as of now) moment. This film cannot shift gears. It goes from unexpectedly funny to moodily dramatic and then careens towards slapstick with out transition, and a lot of the emotional movement of the movie is too intense and too fast. When an outing Phillip was looking forward to goes poorly, his reaction is completely different than anything else the character has done.

The movie feels like important bits are missing – as though delicate and necessary plot points were cut from the original to allow time for Hart to have a truly pointless fight with a German shower.

Cranston is like a caged animal. He’s a generous actor, and gives Hart space and a good partner for some genuinely funny moments. Cranston doesn’t steal scenes from him, but he doesn’t give them away either. As Phillip, he can only move his neck and head – the actors need Cranston to have that limit to balance the scenes – and Cranston exudes energy and vibrancy from his pores, when his limbs aren’t allowed to do it.  But he’s also a bit simpering, particularly in the romance department.

The Upside offers the most tedious and forced romantic story line I’ve seen in a while. Rather than keeping the love story on the bromance, they force in something formulaic and obvious – as if the only validation this person can have is through romantic affirmation. It’s a distraction and it’s hard to buy into.

Ultimately, The Upside feels like three films cobbled together. There’s the Kevin Hart comedy, the odd-couple comedy (which are the best scenes of the movie), and the really truly awful drama. It just doesn’t pull off all the things it’s trying to and never comes together. But, it does land one of the best “that’s what she said jokes” I’ve ever heard.

Kate Walz

Kate is a digital advertising ninja by day, but a content-consuming pop-culture nerd always. Her top 5 movies are: The Philadelphia Story, The Master, The Fountain, What About Bob and The Departed.

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