Search:

The Upside **

by Ruben Rosario

Lame when it comes to drawing laughs and dull when it tries to be serious, this shoddy remake of the hit French dramedy “The Intouchables” largely squanders a game Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman to showcase just how limited Kevin Hart's range actually is. 

Is it worth $10? No 

There's the seed of a pretty decent movie hidden amidst the facile fish-out-of-water jokes and gay panic gags, but “The Upside” never really had a chance, despite the considerable pedigree in front of and behind the camera. Why? In large part (but not completely) because it's a semi-serious Kevin Hart vehicle disguised as a dramedy in which the star ostensibly bends his comic persona to fit the story. But the box office draw is conspicuously unwilling to make the effort, in the service of material that's pretty problematic to begin with.

The stand-up comedian turned box office draw plays Dell Scott, a down-on-his-luck ex-con struggling to find work and get back on the good graces of his estranged wife (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di'Allo Winston). An improbable misunderstanding takes the loudmouthed loser to an upscale New York City penthouse and across from Philip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), a wealthy philanthropist who became paralyzed below the neck after a paragliding accident. Dell thinks he's applying for a janitor position, but his insouciance sparks something in the disenchanted paraplegic, who offers him a caregiver position on the spot. Yvonne (an egregiously wasted Nicole Kidman) points out, accurately, that the candidate is a walking disaster who has been picked by an employer clouded by a death wish.

But Philip, who's plagued by tacky flaskbacks, er, nightmares, of his dead wife, intuits there's potential in the crass blabbermouth. A capable thespian would have found a way to strike a balance between Dell's bad manners and his awakening to a world of privilege (opera! fine art!) that had been off limits to him. But Hart is adrift whenever the film requires him to show some gravity. His performance teeters between broad odd-couple schtick and feel-good odd-couple schtick. It falls on Cranston (and, to a more limited extent, Kidman) to bring much-needed nuance to a screenplay that gives them little to do to elicit the viewer's empathy. The “Breaking Bad” star singlehandedly prevents “The Upside” from being a complete misfire.

But the film, which repackages the 2011 French box office hit “The Intouchables,” itself inspired by a true story, for an American audience, is too attached to the source material, which was already prehistoric and cringe-worthy in its original form. There's only so much the cast can do in the service of material that plays the main character's unsavory prejudices for laughs. The timing is doubly unfortunate for the remake, which made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September 2017 and has been sitting on a shelf since, mostly due to the dissolution of The Weinstein Company, which was to release the film, in the wake of a plethora of sexual misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Then there's the elephant in the room for 2019 moviegoers. Do they really want to see Hart perform a “but no homo” routine opposite Cranston after stepping down as host of next month's Academy Awards following social media outrage over homophobic content in old tweets and stand-up routine? Which brings me to “The Upside's” catheter humor. Imagine the yuks: the in-over-his-head employee attempts the intimate maneuver of replacing Philip's bladder tube when, wait for it, he's confronted with a growing problem. Cue the paroxysms of disgust.

TheUpside2

The icky scene worked like gangbusters at the advance screening I attended, but haven't we moved on from these lowest-common-denominator content at the movies? Don't ask director Neil Burger, who made a splash back in 2006 with the period magician yarn “The Illusionist” and has been struggling to recapture lightning in a bottle ever since. It doesn't help that Jon Hartmere's screenplay replaces the protagonist's identity crisis as a Senegalese refugee in “The Intouchables” with a stale deadbeat-dad narrative arc that, rather than giving Hart an opportunity to flex his acting muscles, just underlines his limits as an screen presence.

Even more astonishing is that “The Upside” was lensed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano,” “Lone Star”), and yet the film looks cheap and distractingly video-y. (It doesn't help that Philadelphia is an unconvincing stand-in for New York City.) But despite the many, many problems with this middling bummer, Cranston often rises above the material in a way that makes this reviewer wonder why the success he has enjoyed on the small screen continues to elude him on theatrical endeavors.

But a handful of observant moments, as well as one funny joke involving Buffalo, New York, does not a feature make, and “The Upside” ends up letting us down, and even though fingers will justly be pointed at Hart and Weinstein for the baggage they add, Burger has ultimately no one to blame but himself.

Cron Job Starts