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THE UPSIDE (2019) review

January 13, 2019

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written by: John Hartmere (adapted from a screenplay by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache)
produced by: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch
directed by: Neil Berger
rated: PG-13 (for suggestive content and drug use)
runtime: 125 min.
U.S. release date: January 11, 2019

 

“The Upside” is the quintessential inevitable American remake. It takes a highly successful film – in this case, the touching and humorous “The Intouchables”, a successful French dramedy biopic from 2011- and tries to bottle that success by transporting the story to America by way of Hollywood. The result is typically a surefire miss and that’s what happens here. This attempt by screenwriter Jon Hartmere and director Neil Burger (“Limitless” and “The Illunsionist”) fails, painfully so, on just about every level. I’m confident I would say that even if I had not recently watched the original film for the first time. It’s a movie that doesn’t understand what made the original story work, opting instead for a wrongheaded approach that unfortunately plays for laughs, ultimately delivering a convenient, heavy-handed and painfully cliched movie.

In an effort to make sure this will go down easy for American moviegoers, the story here transplants the setting from Paris to New York City, where we meet jobless ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), a thirtysomething ne’er-do-well who needs to provide his parole officer with signatures of potential employers or else he’ll be sent back to the slammer. Dell inadvertently finds himself in line at the upscale penthouse of wealthy quadriplegic, Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), thinking he’s applying for a position as building janitor.  Philip is won over by Dell’s unintentionally blunt candor and offers the job of a live-in life auxillary (24/7 in-home carer) on the spot, despite hesitation from his dutiful assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). After some adjustments to each other’s company, as well as a socio-economic lifestyle change for Dell, the two men wind up helping each other in unexpected ways – Dell helps the wheelchair-bound Phillip loosen up and relax and open himself up to possibilities he would’ve otherwise felt were closed to him due to his limited mobility, while Phillip tries to help Dell grab a vision for his future career/life path.

 

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Like “The Intouchables,” there are subplots in “The Upside” that inform us about their behavior and what’s going on in the lives of Dell and Phillip. Besides staying out of prison, Dell’s main motivation for a steady gig is to be able to provide for his tween son, Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “Proud Mary”) and his ex, Latrice (Aja Naomi, “The Birth of a Nation”), both of whom he’s neglected by being either incarcerated or MIA. Phillip’s prison isn’t just being trapped in a wheel chair, but also putting limitations on his life based on what he feels is possible in his condition. He’s wealthy and can afford anything he wants, but still requires an assistant for bodily needs others take for granted. He has longings of companionship like anyone else, which he is why he engages in an epistolary relationship with a woman named Lily (a woefully underused Julianna Margoles), although he’s understandably hesitant to meet her in person. The characters in these subplots feel tacked on and written in a predictable manner, not allowing any opportunity for nuance or refreshing characterizations.

What becomes clear right away is how Hartmere and Burger are not concerning themselves with offering any character nuance to the two main characters here, nor are they adding anything new or different to the material they’re remaking. Instead, they’re settling on a checklist of bromance tropes set amid racial and socio-economic differences that give audiences something that will go down easy. Their remake has some noticeable differences (some small, some just wrongheaded) from the film French filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano made and that’s unfortunate considering “The Intouchables” has a compelling, touching story that contains both heart and humor, elements that are grossly missing in this iteration of a story that’s based on the lives of Corsican aristocrat of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his French-Algerian caregiver Abdel Sellou. 

In “The Upside”, comedy is front loaded, whereas “The Intouchables” emphasized the drama of the story while adding some natural and clever humorous aspects that ease and engage viewers. It’s too bad this American remake feels the need to hit us over the head with the funny as it crosses off what is seemingly a checklist of tropes one typically finds in a fish-out-of-water bromance story, especially the kind that includes differences in race and socio-economic status. The laughs mostly come during situations that do not warrant comedy or simply try too hard, as if they’re going out of their way to remind people that Kevin Hart is funny.

 

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Here’s the thing though – Hart doesn’t have to be funny in this role and for all purposes that would’ve better served both his character and the story. It certainly would’ve been a smarter career move on his part, but maybe the timing isn’t right for audiences to take Hart seriously. Oh, he’s not overtly comical throughout most of the movie and by all means this isn’t a “Kevin Hart comedy”, but his funny moments feel forced and unnecessary. We don’t need a scene where he’s trying to figure out how a fancy shower that talks to him in German works, nor do we need an overlong sequence where he Hart’s Dell refuses to utter the word “penis” while trying to change Cranston’s catheter. I get it, for someone who isn’t trained in the medical field, doing something like that to another man, but there are subtler ways to handle such a scene that would’ve been funnier. And then there’s the overextended moments where the Dell and Phillip  smoking weed together, which seems to be a bonding prerequisite in current movies focusing on adult friendships.

Granted, that’s what moviegoers are looking for when they walk into a movie in which Kevin Hart is playing an assistant to a cranky Cranston. That’s right, Cranston is kind of one-note here, often looking catatonic and acting drugged, which is immediately clear in a pivotal opening scene that supposed to have viewers guessing the relationship between Dell and Phillip, which is a scene that Omar Sy and François Cluzet mastered in “The Intouchables”. It doesn’t work here and I may feel that way because I recently seen the original film, but I think even if I hadn’t that opening (and the overall movie) would still be painfully groan-inducing.

“The Upside” is about as simplistic as the recent “Green Book” when it comes to a “based on a true story” unlikely friendship between a black man and a white man. The characters in both movies feel painfully stereotypical, as does their behavior and actions.  I struggle with having problems with a screenplay based on real people, but it usually feels like there’s a better approach to take then the obvious paths taken.

Remakes typically make me groan internally – sure, there are some rare great ones (“The Departed” and “Some Like It Hot”) – but “The Upside” is the type that find me groaning audibly. I don’t typically advise watching trailers, but in this case compare the trailers of “The Upside” and “The Intouchables” and I can bet you which movie you’re more inclined to see. Hint: it’s not this one.

 

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RATING: *1/2

 

 

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