Genuine Sentiment Saves What Could Have Been A Racist Shitshow
First things first: yes, this movie is about a jive-talking wise-ass from the ghetto who shows a stuck-up rich honkey how to loosen up and love life. Except the white dude is a quadriplegic. So think Diff’rent Strokes with a wheelchair. But better.
THE UPSIDE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Neil Burger
Written by: John Hartmere
Starring: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman
Running time: 126 min.
“Your plantation is bananas,” says sassy ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) when he first sees the palatial Park Avenue penthouse home of Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). The depressed billionaire, a venture capitalist paralyzed by a paragliding accident, is in the middle of interviewing caregiving candidates. Dell just needs a signature on his employment search document to quell his parole officer, but Phillip decides to hire the deeply unqualified Dell as a sort of secret death wish. His tightly-wound administrative assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), rolls her eyes but acquiesces. After all, no one says no to Phillip. No one, that is, except—wait for it—that’s right, Dell. And the more he speaks his mind, or jokes around, or goads Phillip into doing the right thing, the more Phillip opens up. And, yes, reader, they help each other grow emotionally.
That said, The Upside handles its hoary, condescending, racist sitcom trope with surprising empathy. Even more astonishingly, it’s not the Oscar winner or the Oscar nominee but Kevin Hart who actually has the most dramatic scenes. And Walter White can only move his lips. And Nicole Kidman is literally just playing what looks like the most normal version of Nicole Kidman ever, eyeglasses and Aussie accent included.
The reason this film comes off as halfway realistic, let alone inspiring, is because it really is halfway realistic. The Upside is a very faithful remake of the French smash Les Intouchables, which itself was based on the documentary about wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker Adbel Sellou. The original movie, which broke box office records around the world, has already inspired an Indian version and an Argentine version. So this new U.S. take was really just a matter of time.
Prep for opera-versus-Aretha digs. Cue the oh-snap! gags about fancy Lamborghinis. And brace for the catheter riffs about man-on-penis contact that don’t ring well right now, considering Hart’s current apology tour for making past gay-slur jokes. That said, most of the other small-chuckle comic bits actually stick the landing, like when Dell tells a snooty, suspicious neighbor that his name is Daquandashé Blackman. And more than a few moments are even occasionally touching, especially the widowed Phillip’s anxious hang-wringing over a potentially amorous pen pal.
Expect sassy asides, a few bits of physical humor (that rich man has a shower with crazy nozzles!), and cornball sentiment (at one point, someone mouths “thank you”). And don’t be surprised at how much the movie earns its genuine pathos. Sure, Dell and Phillip break a bunch of expensive shit on the floor in a broad-stroke moment of catharsis. But also listen closely and you’ll hear Dell mutter, almost as a throwaway aside, “I’ve made so many mistakes.”
There’s tons of pain on display, which is saying something for a high-concept feel-good racial harmony movie like this one. The Upside has many regrets and much suffering, from more characters than usual. And maybe it’s because, miraculously, the film is better than its cinematic profiling. Which is apt, really, for a film about pushing through stereotypes.