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The Upside may sound like the kind of weepy drama that 30 Rock would make up, but it is real and comes out Friday.
In fact, it is based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou (names changed to Phillip Lacasse and Dell Scott in the film, played by Bryan Cranston and Hart, respectively) and adapted from the 2012 French film Les Intouchables. It also is perfectly fine.
The big theme at the heart of The Upside, the American remake of 2011 French hit Les Intouchables, starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, is that everyone deserves a second chance. This point, hammered home everywhere from the dialogue to the cringey voiceover in the trailer that tells us that “sometimes you have to run out of chances, before someone takes a chance on you” is ironic on many levels. First, because this is a remake! Second, because Hart himself is currently seeking redemption after being ousted from his gig as host of the 2019 Academy Awards after he refused to apologize for past homophobic tweets and comments. And third, because for a film that’s so big on learning from past mistakes, The Upside falls woefully short.
Hollywood has a long history of remaking French films. Unfortunately, for the most part, they haven’t been especially good at it (see — or rather don’t see — Dinner for Schmucks). Both The Upside and Les Intouchables are loosely based on the real friendship between French aristocrat Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer, Algerian immigrant Abdel Sellou, immortalized in Borgo’s best-selling memoir, A Second Wind. Written and directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, Les Intouchables remains France’s biggest international hit ever, grossing roughly $340 million even before its eventual U.S. release by the Weinstein Company. (The now infamous company also holds the rights to the remake, yet another The Upside to overcome).
Still, despite its overall popularity, Les Intouchables was plagued with criticism regarding its depictions of racist stereotypes, which many hoped would be addressed in the Hollywood remake. In his Variety review in September 2011, Jay Weissberg wrote: “The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights, will need to commission a massive rewrite to make palatable this cringe-worthy comedy about a rich, white quadriplegic hiring a black man from the projects to be his caretaker, exposing him to ‘culture’ while learning to loosen up.
Unfortunately, that’s a pretty concise summary of The Upside. Cranston plays Philip Lacasse, a rich New York businessman who has been left paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair by a paragliding accident. Depressed after the death of his wife, he seeks a caregiver who won’t pity him, and will respect his wish that no extraordinary measures be taken to revive him if he stops breathing. Enter Dell Scott (Hart), an ex-con from the projects seeking enough signatures to prove to his parole officer that he’s actually looking for a job. Instead, he gets hired, much to the dismay of Philip’s business manager, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman).
For a foreign remake to truly be relevant, it should get at some kind of essential truth overlooked by its predecessor. (Take the multiple interpretations of A Star is Born, each of which say something specific about their time, and the nature of celebrity, while all following the same narrative arc.) At the very least, it should be adapted to more closely fit the socio-political context of the country it’s being released in. The Upside does neither.
Fans of the original will recognize nearly every scene, down to Dell shaving Philip’s beard into a Hitler mustache as a joke. As in The Intouchables, some of those moments are truly funny — again, they’ve been tried and tested. And with solid performances by Cranston, and Hart, who shows here that he is more than capable of shouldering a dramatic role, the film could have squeezed past January audiences as an adequate, if forgettable adaptation. But if the issue of race felt inadequately addressed in the French context, it feels egregiously lacking in nuance and introspection here.
Screening the film on the day after Green Book took home the award for Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical at the 2019 Golden Globes, it was hard not to draw comparisons between the two. Although the dynamic is reversed (Green Book features Black pianist Don Shirley exposing his white Italian-American driver to classical music, while The Upside does the opposite, with opera), both share a dated approach to race that feels like something straight of the 1990s. Neither film goes beyond surface level to examine systemic racism, or white privilege, and how that affects power dynamics. Instead, they focus on the singular positive story between a white man and his first Black friend.
For what it’s worth, “The Upside” is exactly what you think it is: the latest Hollywood effort that aims to show that a black man and a white man with seemingly nothing in common can see past their differences and develop a mutual friendship. It’s just as pat and basic as it looks and sounds.
Maybe as we enter 2019 clinging to ideals of goodness, there is a place for a film like this that doesn’t really have a point beyond which to say that we can, in fact, all get along no matter what. That is, after all, the basis of Dell (Kevin Hart) and Phillip’s (Bryan Cranston) professional relationship-turned-friendship.
When we first meet the two, we’re not really sure how they know each other, because Dell is behind the wheel of a luxury car driving at full speed while Phillip is quietly strapped in on the passenger side, sneering at Dell’s wild road antics. For all we know at this point, Dell is Phillip’s driver, and the latter is not much of a fan of the former. But as the scene progresses, it’s established that Dell took Phillip, who is paralyzed from the neck down, out on a joy ride to lift his spirits. And it’s one of Phillip’s many fancy cars that Dell is driving. Dell, as it turns out, is Phillip’s life aide.
This is one of many on-the-nose scenes in an after-school-special-esque drama that hinges on the unlikely friendship between the duo. Dell is an African American ex-con who’s so consumed with how life has screwed him over that he’s neglected his duties as a father to his young son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “Everything Sucks!”) and ignored the child support mandate, much to the chagrin of Anthony’s mom Latrice (Aja Naomi King, “How to Get Away with Murder”). In other words, he’s a stereotype; even worse, a stereotype with no other purpose than to illuminate the humanity of his white counterpart.
Director Neil Burger (with a huge assist from screenwriter Jon Hartmere, who adapted the story from the 2011 French film “The Intouchables”) attempts, in vain, to turn Dell’s image around but only through Phillip’s gaze, who ultimately sees Dell for who he could become — a responsible man with apparently as yet unfocused dreams — rather than who he presents himself to be. Dell, in turn, sees beyond Phillip’s physical disability and hard exterior to the man he really is, devastated over losing the thriving career he once had as a bestselling author as well as the life he had with his now deceased wife Jenny (Genevieve Angelson, “Good Girls Revolt”). Phillip is lonely, sad, and constantly irritable; Dell helps him see beyond his own pain. (It’s as hokey as it sounds.)
Though “The Upside” is told primarily through Dell’s perspective (his broken relationship with his son and ex is threaded throughout the entire film and other backstory details are pronounced), he still lacks nuance and is mostly just there as comedic relief. It is Phillip who gets a full arc, not Dell. This is particularly irksome because all the characters around Phillip, including Dell, are reduced to mere instruments of his progression despite the fact that at his most basic, he is an angry, middle-aged has-been. But that bottom line is not the core of his character; he gets to have layers while Dell and the other characters don’t.
Nicole Kidman plays Phillip’s former business associate Yvonne, who returns to his side after the accident that leaves him paralyzed and effectively becomes yet another casualty of Phillip’s perpetual grumpiness. But even in her case, Dell is used as a comedic device to soften her steely personality. He’s like the human form of an antidepressant for everyone else in the film.
“The Upside” mimics the same issues that plagued the “The Intouchables” in that it uses its black lead simply as a plot device for the white lead. Much like the similarly praised “Green Book” (which chronicles the unlikely bond between a problematic white man and his black employer, effectively redeeming the former), “The Intouchables” redeems the white man and uses his aide as his narrative prop. (Also like “Green Book,” the French film is based upon an autobiographical story, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s experiences with his black male aide.) Unlike “Green Book,” however, “The Upside” does not rely on racial contrast between its characters but rather on their socioeconomic contrast.
After myriad trial and error, Dell and Phillip gain a mutual understanding with the help of the film’s score (by Rob Simonsen, “The Front Runner”), reminding both themselves and the audience that the universality of Aretha Franklin has the power to bring everyone — regardless of race, color, creed, or class — together. “The Upside” assumes that viewers will look past its shortcomings to embrace this idealistic gospel.
Hart and Cranston have great buddy chemistry, but it’s not enough to hold up the film. (And a scene in which Dell gets flustered about the word “penis” — saying it, or handing the actual member — when he has to change Philip’s catheter, plays particularly poorly in light dof Hart’s current situation.)
In fact, what The Upside does change from its source material is unnecessary manufactured conflict. An epistolary relationship between Philip and Lily (Julianna Margulies), a woman with whom he’s supposed to have developed an intense emotional connection with, and so essential to the original version, is used here only as a hurdle for Philip to realize the woman he’s really looking for is Yvonne. (Because everyone knows a woman can’t possibly work for a man without secretly wanting to sleep with him.) And so, in addition to everything else, the film utterly wastes its female talents, relegating Aja Naomi Scott (who plays Dell’s long-suffering ex and the mother of his son), Margulies and even Kidman to one-note roles without any real depth.
Les Intouchables isn’t perfect — but at least it has the excuse of having been made eight years ago. The Upside on the other hand, has wasted its second chance.