There was a time when it seemed possible that “The Upside,” a drama based on a 2011 French cultural phenomenon and starring one of the most acclaimed actors of the last decade and one of the most popular comedians on planet Earth, wouldn’t get a release. The film premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, about a year and a half ago. It was picked up for distribution and set for a March 2018 release date, but a month later its distributor, The Weinstein Company, found itself facing the legal firestorm that jumpstarted the #MeToo movement and continues to shift the power structure of Hollywood today. It sat on a shelf for nearly a year before STX Entertainment and Lantern Entertainment, the successor to The Weinstein Company, bought it, retooled it for a PG-13 rating and re-slated it for release.
I open by recounting the story of “The Upside” not just because it provides a look into how even a movie with so much going for it can still nearly fall through the cracks and how other movies that have fallen through the cracks can come to be “rescued,” but because the story behind “The Upside” is much more interesting than anything about “The Upside” itself. Like “Green Book” before it, it seems to strive to be the most milquetoast, inoffensive race relations story possible, but where “Green Book” at least had the comfort of stylish period trappings to propel it into something an iota above average, “The Upside” has only its underserved leads.
The story follows Dell Scott (Kevin Hart, The 91st Academy A—I mean, “Night School”), a down-on-his-luck ex-con looking for a job who eventually finds it with Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston, “Sneaky Pete”), a quadriplegic billionaire in need of a live-in life assisstant. Phillip is struck by Dell’s cavalier attitude during the interview and hires him, and the two men form a friendship that will not only change their lives for the better, but maybe, just maybe, will teach themselves a little something about themselves.
For all the well-deserved controversy currently surrounding him, it’s hard to see Hart’s performance in “The Upside” as anything other than his best yet. What he needs is a director who can rein in his boundless energy and channel it towards something productive rather than the same types of ego-stroking riffs that serve only to pad the runtime. Here, Hart seems to find that in Neil Burger (“Divergent”), who gives him his fair share of comedic moments but also forces him to, you know, act. His chemistry with Cranston is particularly strong, and their odd couple dynamic provides the movie with its best moments.
The problem is that those moments are few and far between. For all the restraint he shows with his use of Hart, Burger’s direction of the rest of the film results in little more than a shot-for-shot remake of the original French film “The Intouchables,” warts and all. The stilted social commentary is there. The predictable story is there. Even the opening scene is virtually an exact copy of the original film. The only thing of note added is a romantic subplot between Phillip and his executive Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, “Boy Erased”), a story so familiar that it only serves to further the feeling that this script was assembled from the pages of other films.
That’s what “The Upside” feels like more often than not. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a good movie. It’s a well-acted but deeply uninspired movie which tries for social relevance and falls flat on its face. I’m not arguing that every story has to be completely original, but there are no surprises here. We’ve seen it with “The Blind Side.” We’ve seen it with “Green Book.” Now we see it with “The Upside.” If you can read the synopsis above and honestly say that you can’t predict beat-by-beat where that story will go and how it will eventually end, then maybe you’ll find some enjoyment here. But if you’ve seen any inspirational drama in the last twenty years, this will likely do very little for you.