2019, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Aja Naomi King.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 18, 2019
The Upside, a mismatched buddy film, is an Americanized remake of the French mega hit The Intouchables from 2011. The story is based on the true-life experiences of billionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who became a quadriplegic following a hang-gliding accident, and his French-Algerian caregiver Abdel Sellou. Like the French version, the unlikely pair, now situated in New York rather than Paris, comprises a white businessman (mais oui) and a black petty thief out on parole who needs to land a job in order to remain out of prison. The black man teaches the white man about the pleasures of fast cars, hot dogs, and R&B music (although The Upside substitutes Aretha Franklin for the original’s example of Earth, Wind & Fire), while the white man teaches the black man about opera, fine art, and exotic foods like kumquats.
Despite being one of the top-grossing films in French history, Intouchables was derided by a great number of critics as having a similar racial subtext to Driving Miss Daisy. Very few tweaks have been made to the plot during its trip across the pond (the theft of a Fabergé egg becomes the theft of a first-edition copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in The Upside) and romantic details play out differently, among other small shifts to the basic plot. However, this American version (which was wrangled away for distribution by STX Entertainment from The Weinstein Company after it crashed and burned in ignominy last year) is more likely to be compared with a more recent release of dubious racial connotations: Green Book.
The always remarkable Bryan Cranston plays the invalid Philippe, who has lost all motor skills from the neck down. He has only his face with which to express emotions and Cranston makes the most of the opportunity with modulated expressions of pleasure, pain, joy, anger, and humor. Comedian Kevin Hart takes on a dramatic role as Philippe’s aide Dell, and greatly tones down his motormouth persona to present a character whose insolence and uncompassionate manner are what make him a desirable caretaker in Philippe’s mind. However, we’re reminded of the comedian’s overblown schtick (and perhaps his recent Oscar-hosting controversy) in a few sequences such as when the insertion of a catheter and his inability to vocalize the word “penis” give rise to a painfully prolonged episode of mugging and cringing. The direction by Neil Burger (Divergent, Limitless) is workmanlike: Nicole Kidman, as good as she is, is given little to do in a one-note role, but fares better than Julianna Margulies who appears merely in a one-scene role. Kevin Hart’s huge number of fans may push this film to early box-office success but eventually they are likely to toss it into the untouchable pile.