The Upside (2019)

Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Jon Hartmere

The sun has not yet set on the 2018 film cycle, with the major awards, such as the Oscars, still yet to come. But the calendar has flipped to 2019, and as such, 2019 released will start to trickle out amid the hum of last year’s buzz. So to start with a film like The Upside seems fitting, since IMDb lists it as a 2017 release, after premiering at TIFF in the fall of that year. Likely a poor sign that a film that premiered a major festival in 2017 got pushed to a 2019 release, but the promise of the leads Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart making magic piqued my curiosity. Of course, the other interesting factoid with this film is that it is a remake of a well-regarded French film called The Intouchables. I regrettably haven’t seen it, but after enjoying The Upside more than I was expecting to, perhaps The Intouchable can lead the way in my 2019 new discoveries.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a troubled man with a troubled past. After multiple stints in prison, he finds himself needing to get signatures from potential employers to provide to his Parole Officer, while also finding it hard to connect with his son Anthony after years of neglect. He shows up in the penthouse of Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a quadriplegic and quickly becomes not just Phillip’s caregiver, but also his friend, against the wishes of Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), Phillip’s executive who believes Dell is a detriment to Phillip’s well-being. The odd couple, both on the outs in life, find solace in each other’s company, and a renewed purpose for a life that didn’t go quite as planned. But can the polar opposites remain on good terms forever, or will their friendship implode, like so many other things in their lives?

As an early January release, I honestly had low expectations for The Upside. And while it’s never fair to compare a film to your expectations of it, this certainly exceeded mine. At the heart of this film, and I assume the original French film/story is much to thank for this, is a pure intent that comes through with the performances of both Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. Hart in particular is impressive in mostly a dramatic role. He expresses the pain and frustration of his life on his face, while allowing for plenty of room to deliver the comedic moments his career is known for. Opposite Cranston, who is left acting with only his face, Hart holds his own. And Cranston does as much with his limitations as can be expected. The two display above average chemistry on screen, which goes a long way in making this film as enjoyable as it is.

The film is imperfect, to be sure, and much of that has to do with the questionable directing of Neil Burger and screenwriting of Jon Hartmere. As we concentrate on all the moments between Dell and Phillip, there are sudden, dramatic tonal shifts throughout which are startling ways to move the story forward. The filmmakers could have done more to make these shifts feel more natural than the final result. These sudden shifts, like Anthony returning the stolen book to Phillip, or Phillip finally meeting his penpal Lily, sink the goodwill the smaller moments between Cranston and Hart provide. In the end, there is more to like here than not, but the film doesn’t quite live up to its full potential either. I think I’ll go seek out The Intouchables now.

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