The Upside is a pandering mashup of nearly every scrap of emotional shorthand in a cinematic dustbin. Though the effect is not wholly unpleasant, it’s dull, disingenuous, and just as funny as a polite joke from a cashier to pass the time at the checkout counter.
The Upside is an English language adaptation of the popular 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was loosely based on a real-life experience between a caregiver and a patient. As I never saw the original, I cannot comment on what may have been lost in translation between the two films. What I can say is that nothing in The Upside is at all unexpected. Every emotion, every plot hiccup, and every character outburst is right on schedule. This makes the entire film feel like being caught in a lame tide pool that was advertised as a whacky, rip-roaring good time. It’s both lame and a shadow of what it could have been.
The focus of the plot is the relationship between a personal caregiver and a quadriplegic. Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a blindingly wealthy and kind man who lost his beloved wife and the use of his limbs in a hang-gliding accident years ago. Having lost the will to live, he decides to hire the worst applicant for the job: an ex-con named Dell (Kevin Hart) who wandered into the interview by accident. Though Phillip’s executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), tries her best to get rid of Dell in favor of a qualified candidate, Phillip will not budge. The guy makes him laugh, so he wants to keep him around.
I could bore you by going through the motions of the plot from that point, but odds are you already know where The Upside is going. Had it doubled-down on being a sappy emotional journey, it might have maintained some dignity for both the characters and the source material. If that were the case, I might have forgiven it for its Pretty Woman-esque introduction between Dell and opera. Instead, the film insists that it’s somehow a comedy too. While some of the comedy tries to come from physical gags, like the Jacques Tati-inspired incident in an ultra-modern shower, The Upside also thinks it’ll get big laughs from getting the very white Yvonne and Phillip to say “Boo” repeatedly. Highlighting how silly it is to see Dell as a fish out of water around rich white folk, or how absurd the modern art market is today, is not comedy. It’s lazy.
Beyond the torpid writing, it’s a bit astonishing to see a movie with such a simplistic approach to redemption and the value of life. The Upside repeatedly takes a pause to sit with a moment, as of to call attention to how profound it is. The script pokes the audience in the ribs to wow you with the fact that a man in a wheelchair could have a sense of humor. Or that a poor black man might be able to appreciate opera. It’s insulting to the characters, and it’s also insulting to the audience. There is no insight or nuance, merely self-congratulatory fluff.
There may be an audience of people who are satisfied with The Upside, and find the story of a paralyzed man discovering beauty in the small things in life both original and inspirational, but I’m not one of them.