6 out of 10
Kevin Hart as Dell Scott
Directed by Neil Burger
The Upside Review:
An artifact of an older age of studio filmmaking, The Upside may not have a place in modern cinema and even if it did, its parts don’t fit together particularly well. One part character comedy, one part melodrama, multiple parts fish-out-of-water light entertainment, The Upside struggles for a point of view or a reason to exist beyond the natural charisma of its leads. That’s setting aside its place in the long history of Hollywood ‘prejudice doesn’t really exist and where it does it is easily defeated’ type dramas. It’s an oeuvre whose time has come and gone but will continue to be made specifically because it is ‘feel good.’ Worse, it would be easy to write the whole thing off as just another piece of studio cotton candy if the skill of everyone involved didn’t keep peeking through the sugary membrane.
Adapted from Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables (itself based roughly on the life Phillippe Pozzo di Borgo), The Upside follows recently paroled ex-con Dell Scott (Hart) trying to put his past behind him and reconnect with his estranged wife (Angelson) and son (Winston). Unfortunately Scott has had difficulty finding work he a) can get and b) wants … which ends up making him the perfect choice to become a life auxiliary for a paralyzed billionaire (Cranston). Initially askance about the life of a privileged elite (a feeling his employer shares of him), Dell and Phillip soon develop an unlikely bond and reliance on each other. But is it enough to get them past the very real obstacles to leading normal lives which they face?
Hollywood has made a LOT of films like this over the years (in fact one of them is likely to get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) and this is just the latest. Considering how many times this has been done it seems like (if it’s going to be continued) some evolution might have appeared by now, but no. That leaves The Upside stuck in the grooves of the carts gone on in the past, following the path without any ability to deviate. Dell is full of street smarts and wise cracks, struck by how silly the upper crust world is and trying to figure out how he can get something from it during his brief interaction. Phillip is equal parts patronizing and understanding, smarter and worldlier than his friend but also consistently surprised by his insight and skills. It speaks volumes to Hart and Cranston’s chops that they are able to carry as much of this off as they do.
And they are good in it. Both are playing roles they’ve done before – Hart in particularly slips into his classic fast talker mode repeatedly – but both also try and push beyond those edges. Cranston has the to do the most obvious work as his role limits him to only acting with his face (and occasionally his motorized chair) but Hart keeps up with him whenever he drops his shtick which fits neither the material nor director Burger’s (Limitless) naturalistic bent.
Burger has also surrounded them with spectacular support, from Stuart Dryburgh’s elegant and understated cinematography to Mark Friedberg’s stellar production design. At the top of that list, by far, is Nicole Kidman as Phillip’s long-time put upon assistant (they say executive but all she seems to do is plan functions and answer correspondence) Yvonne. It’s the sort of thankless role Kidman would have had to take on her way up the acting ladder but now seems a strange addition just a month after Destroyer came out. She does her best with it, and as with many of the other old hands pushing The Upside around her best is plenty good but there is a limit to how much anyone can break free of the tropes the film rolls around in.
This is seeing professionals doing what they do. They’ve got the script, they’ve got the job, they’re going to do the best they can with what they’ve got. And they do, but what they’ve got is only going to take them, and us, so far. Perhaps this will be enough to convince anyone left that it’s a type of film which has been made enough and is time to be put behind us, but I doubt it.