The Upside (2019) Review
The Upside is directed by Neil Burger (Divergent) and written by Jon Hartmere (The Electric Company). This American remake stars Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Kevin Hart (Ride Along) and Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies). "A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who's hired to help him". Was an American remake of an overlooked (outside of Europe) French film necessary?
A film as mediocre as The Upside can usually be redeemed as heartwarming and harmless. Unfortunately, from its opening scene, The Upside is tasteless and offensive - its depictions of women, disability, race and sexuality are antiquated and regressive. With high-calibre talent Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman in leading roles and a charming true story as inspiration, The Upside could have been an awards frontrunner. However, the end result is little more than failed Oscar-bait that stars the ever-annoying Kevin Hart. A film with insulting and crude humour was never going to be well regarded - what were they thinking?
Nicole Kidman is better than The Upside. She has passed the point in her career where she needs to play characters like Yvonne. Yvonne is mostly sidelined and is only useful for exposition and romance. The character is baselessly rude to Hart's Deli and is hesitant to give him a chance. In one of her first scenes, Yvonne is referred to as Phillip's (Cranston) 'boo' despite them only having a professional relationship. Other than her initial harshness, the character is absent of any quirks or prominent personality traits; she's a plain jane. Yvonne's true purpose only becomes clear in the film's final few minutes when she is unveiled as Phillip's perfect lover. Once again, a female character feels lost in a film's story until a man validates her position. Yvonne isn't the only female character that The Upside handles problematically, the women in the supporting cast are also mistreated and objectified. It's disheartening that Kidman would sign on to play such a poorly written female character (paycheque gig?) and quite frankly, her performance is almost as disappointing.
More often than not, Kevin Hart's performances are overly charismatic and irritating. Although Hart has been cast in a more complex role, his performance as Dell Scott is still packed with Kevin Hart-isms that make the character anything but charming and likeable. Hart probably signed on to this role to showcase his acting chops, but the only thing that he successfully showcases is how vexatious he can be. Hart's Dell is an ex-convict in search of a job who mistakenly interviews for a life auxiliary position. While the fish-out-of-water trope is occasionally funny, there are multiple offensive moments. The job role requires Dell to change the tube that helps Phillip to micturate. Dell has a huge problem with this and refuses to even say 'penis'. The character's blatant toxic masculinity and borderline homophobia are abhorrent; it certainly doesn't help Hart's current social media situation. Dell's race is also pointed out too often. The character mocks himself because of his skin colour and is prejudiced by other characters. Dell also has a complicated relationship with his son. This is something that the film doesn't explore enough.
There has been controversy surrounding the casting of the perfectly able Bryan Cranston as a disabled man. Even though this is not ideal, The Upside isn't the first film to do this (Me Before You, The Theory of Everything), and won't be the last. Hollywood has bigger problems and its depiction of disability is one of them. In its opening scene, The Upside has Cranston's Phillip faking a seizure to excuse Dell's fast driving. While this scene was meant to play for laughs, it was an unfunny dud that set the tone for the rest of the film. Cranston's performance is rather bland. There are many moments throughout the film that Cranston will likely want to erase from his portfolio: screaming with rage as Hart smashes ornaments to release his inner anger, receiving a seductive message (ears only) from a prostitute and getting high (more than once). To live a fulfilled and exciting life, The Upside suggests that sex, drugs and violence are necessary. Surely there are more touching things that could be said about disability?
The Upside is an ode to Aretha Franklin. Neil Burger and Jon Hartmere wouldn't have been able to predict Franklin's death when making the film in early 2017 (so they do not deserve too much credit), but Dell's passion for Franklin's music is poignant. The only respectful thing about The Upside is its love of Aretha Franklin.
An otherwise mediocre and forgettable film is dishonoured by its representation of disability, gender and race. Jon Hartmere's script is ignorant and crude. Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman are beyond these roles and it is utterly disappointing that they are a part of this. This film couldn't have come at a worse time in Kevin Hart's career. The Upside is a disgrace to the French original, The Intouchables, which probably handled this factual story much more delicately. The Upside is a pointless remake that was assembled as Oscar-bait but is far too crude and disrespectful to garner any positive attention. When a film is this distasteful, it's hard to focus on the upside.