Review: Lots of down on 'Upside,' but stars rank high
Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in cliché-addled story of a quadriplegic and his caregiver
The clichés are stacked up like skyscrapers in "The Upside," the affable and soft-peddled story of a billionaire quadriplegic and the street-smart ex-con who teaches him how to live.
It's a mishmash of opposite sides of the fence storytelling tropes that aims for the middle and hits its target. If you've seen the poster or seen the trailer (or perhaps "The Intouchables," the hugely popular 2011 French film on which the movie is based) you know the story. That's an upside: you don't have to see it to feel like you've already seen it.
Bryan Cranston is Phillip Lacasse, a wealthy, refined businessman who is confined to a wheelchair after a paragliding accident and is struggling with his will to live. He's interviewing candidates for a caregiver position when in through the door strolls Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), a parolee looking for work. Dell is the most underqualified candidate for the position, which is perfect for Phillip, who figures Dell is the least likely to have qualms with his Do Not Resuscitate wishes should he fall under ill health.
Dell is hired, an affront to Phillip's assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), who puts Dell on a three-strikes-and-you're-out probationary program. Dell refuses to help clean Phillip after his bowel movements, which simply costs him one strike on Yvonne's scale. That's an example of how "The Upside" skirts around its more complicated issues: it simply washes its hands of the messy stuff and looks the other way.
It's more interested in playing up the cultural differences between Phillip and Dell, and what they are able to learn from each other. Phillip teaches Dell about fine art and the opera, Dell teaches "P" about smoking weed and Aretha Franklin. (The Queen of Soul is given her due in the film, and it's no last-minute honorarium; "The Upside" was filmed in 2017, and sat on the shelf for a year after it was originally slated to be distributed by Harvey Weinstein's company.)
Along the way, Phillip learns to open up and enjoy the finer things in life — hot dogs! — and Dell is able to earn money that he can send to his ex (Aja Naomi King) and their young son (Jahi Di'Allo Winston). A win-win.
But "The Upside" never feels whole, and is torn between comic setpieces (Dell figuring out the luxury shower in his new quarters) and the redemption arcs of its two main characters. There's a lengthy side story involving Phillip meeting his pen pal lover that is given too much attention, and only serves as a hurdle to a more obvious conclusion that is telegraphed early on. And a poke at a pretentious art collector seems unwarranted.
What "The Upside" does have going for it is Cranston and Hart, and the two gifted actors have a chemistry with one another that belies the film's rudimentary script. Hart dials down his manic comic persona and settles comfortably into a more dramatic role, while Cranston, using only his face muscles, makes his character feel rich and refined. "The Upside" has plenty working against it, including a running time that needlessly stretches past the two-hour mark. But at least its stars are on the up and up.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use
Running time: 126 minutes