The Upside follows its source material faithfully. Maybe too faithfully; the urge to compare the two films is undeniable despite its migration from Paris to New York. But while entertaining, The Upside lacks the original film’s fizzy spark, the prickly charisma of its co-stars, and the tantalizing sense that this incredible story — which is actually true — happened on a planet we would recognize as our own.
Bryan Cranston plays Phillip, a billionaire businessman and author who is also quadriplegic following a paragliding accident. Along with stern but faithful assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), Phillip is trying to hire a new physical helper to assist with his daily dressing, grooming, and feeding needs amid the splendour of his posh Manhattan penthouse.
In walks scruffy Dell Scott (Kevin Hart). He has 24 hours to collect three signatures from potential employers to show his parole officer he is actively seeking work. He stumbles onto Phillip and Yvonne’s listing; the stage is set for fish-out-of-water contrast and conflict. And already the plot feels strained.
What follows shows just how much skill Toledano and Nakache leveraged with this oddball story.
To his surprise, ornery Dell is hired by Phillip as a kind of joke despite having no experience and without a background check. But Dell’s swaggering street-smarts and no-nonsense attitude galvanize Phillip to reconsider his perspective. When that doesn’t wholly succeed, there’s late-night pot-smoking, munchies and later, prostitutes and temper tantrums.
But we are told to understand both these guys are fundamentally good — despite jail time and deadbeat dad-hood (Dell) and the savageness required to be a corporate raider (Phillip) — because Dell signs over his cheques to his estranged ex and son, and Phillip mourns his dead wife. So yeah, they’re awesome. And don’t you forget it.
Casting is also part of the problem. Hart has made hay of his tininess in virtually every movie he has ever made, and yet here we are to believe he can effortlessly hoist Cranston’s dead weight from bed to wheelchair. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
Going in, I admit that I didn’t really expect The Upside to delight me anywhere near as much as The Intouchables, which is very, very delightful. The film does get a small pass for its painfully circuitous route into theatres. After premiering at TIFF in 2017, it was sidelined by the collapse of the Weinstein Company, languishing until finding another distributor.
It is also not without merit and one especially powerful scene captures what might have been. After a long epistolary relationship with a woman named Lily, Phillip is goaded by Dell into calling her. The two finally agree to meet up for lunch where Lily (Julianna Margulies) painfully slides from kindness and cooperation into hopeless despair at the reality of Phillip’s disability. Phillip reacts with palpable shame and horror; the whole thing feels intensely real.
It could (and likely will) be argued that French films almost never thrive in English translation; my esteemed colleague Jim Slotek citing La Cage aux Folles as an exception though one propelled by the late Robin Williams. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel that when it comes to The Upside, especially vis-à-vis The Intouchables, subtitles are a small price to pay for a truly superior product.
The Upside. Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman. Opens wide January 11.