A prosaic remake of a successful foreign film, The Upside is unexceptional in every regard apart from the fact it stars Kevin Hart. I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less than rehash the last few weeks of headlines surrounding Hart (including his homophobic “humor,” the 2019 Oscars telecast he’s not hosting, and Ellen DeGeneres’ weird decision to come to his defense). Let’s not talk about any of it. Just be aware that it’s all more noteworthy than anything that happens in The Upside, a movie whose pound-cake inoffensiveness tries to conceal something more neglectful.
Hart plays Dell, a “life auxiliary” hired to help with the day-to-day matters of Phil, a rich quadriplegic played by Bryan Cranston. Dell’s an ex-con entirely unqualified to be a live-in caregiver, but Phil seems to want to irritate his executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), so Dell gets the job! Turns out Dell and Phil get along swimmingly and have lots to learn from one another—Dell learns, for example, that driving Phil’s fancy Ferrari at high speeds is a lot of fun while Phil, for example, learns that smoking weed is a pretty chill time, brah. We, the audience, learn that being unfathomably wealthy is an awfully fortunate thing, especially when a paragliding accident has put you in circumstances where you have to pay someone to do everything for you.
Even if you haven’t seen The Intouchables, the French movie The Upside is based on—and I haven’t—there’s almost nothing to be surprised by here. The movie is pleasantly, almost apologetically banal, even when characters do weird things like have pen pals and take up painting for no reason. There’s a third-act conflict that’s remarkably underwritten (basically, Cranston’s character gets into a bad mood one day) and the pat resolution that ensues basically boils down to “whew, thank Christ this wheelchair guy has so much money.”
Which leaves Hart, Cranston, and a mostly sidelined Kidman to shoulder the weight of this thing entirely with their onscreen charms. They succeed, I suppose, but the movie still feels like it’s been poisoned. Not just by Hart’s current imbroglio—and sweet Jesus, I almost forgot to tell you about the catheter-insertion scene, which is five minutes of Hart gay-panicking about the idea of touching Cranston’s penis—and not just by the delayed circumstances of its release, which involve Harvey Weinstein, whom I also don’t want to talk about. This movie wants to tell you an uplifting story about two mismatched men forming an unlikely friendship, but in doing so, it elides all the truths about race, wealth, class, health care, and criminal justice that we’re faced with in America every day—elements that could’ve made The Upside into something that's actually worth discussing. Instead, its ostensibly good-natured inspirational escapism isn't only toothless, it's thoughtless.