[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival; the film will be released on Friday, January 11, 2019.]
The 2011 French buddy comedy “The Intouchables” was a surprise box-office hit, in part because the story of a wealthy, white paraplegic and the black assistant who becomes his close friend doesn’t exactly scream for commercial domination. Yet the movie became a bonafide cultural phenomenon in France, finding fans around the world in the process; its premise, inspired by the bonding of a French businessman Phillips Pozzo di Borgo and caregiver Abdel Sellou, provided an easy, formulaic template for celebrating a connection across race, class and age.
Some critics found its racial politics as problematic as “Driving Miss Daisy,” in that both ostensibly found a black man rescuing his bitter white superior from a grumpy, insular existence. That’s a classic trope of American cinema, so it was only a matter of time before “The Intouchables made its way to an English-language remake.
The best thing that can be said about “The Upside” — which finds Bryan Cranston chained to a wheelchair and Kevin Hart pushing him around — is that it smooths out the troubling racial elements of the original and winds up as an endearing one-note trifle. The dynamic between the characters remains strained and obvious, but the actors go out of their way to sell it anyway.
Directed in utterly straightforward terms by Neil Berger (“Divergent,” “Limitless”), the movie wastes no time establishing its odd-couple premise. Affluent Upper East Side author Phil (Cranston) needs to hire a new caretaker to help with his day to day needs, even as he grows tired of living; his longtime assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, in a bizarrely phoned-in supporting turn) sets up interviews with a range of possibilities, and as to confirm his death wish, he goes with Dell (Hart), a reckless divorced dad newly released from prison who just wants an easy gig to keep his parole officer at bay.
Instead, he winds up forced into a high-society world of opera and fine art, fast cars, and decent paychecks while trying to help the grouchy Phil get over the death of his wife in a hang-gliding accident that put Phil in the wheelchair.
Dell runs his mouth at every available opportunity, mocking the elegant, upper-class world at odds with his street-wise ways, while Phil warms to the perspective of a rascally figure from outside his bubble of despair. Hijinks ensue as the two worlds collide: As Dell takes an ill-advised interest in painting, gets Phil high, and speeds him around town, “The Upside” follows the safest route toward establishing how these two disparate worlds enrich each other. No surprises here, folks; just half-hearted punchlines and unadventurous sentimentality readymade for marketplace consumption.
Fortunately, Cranston’s gruff delivery makes Hart’s loudmouth a perfect foil, and the actors keep the story engaging with wry grins and one-liners to the extent that they can. Needless to say, the material starts to show the same seams as the original once it heads into a bizarre long-distance romance between Phil and a random woman (Juliana Margulies, in one scene) while Dell attempts to help with the courtship.
It’s here that “The Upside” veers dangerously close to the magical-black-man trope that one would have assumed American movies put to bed ages ago, but it largely avoids the racial subtext that made “Les Intouchables” so problematic. Aside from the occasional poke at Phil’s wealth (“Your plantation is bananas,” Dell says of Phil’s home), most of the humor in “The Upside” is too superficial for any kind of deeper cultural reading. This is a movie more concerned with prolonged gags about catheters and smoking pot than any kind of genuine sophistication.
The story gets more treacly as it moves along, and the bromance hits all the usual notes one might expect from such cookie-cutter material. Yet even as “The Upside” goes to one familiar place after another, there’s an unquestionably endearing quality to the bond between the two men. It may be a low bar, but Hart has shown such depth as a man desperate to clean his life up, and the movie’s gentle rhythms and heartfelt plot give him the chance to show a subtler dimension to his abilities that his usual brash material would never allow.
Cranston, who has the rare ability to scowl and smirk at the same time, can do this sort of rough-hewed material in his sleep. “The Upside” basically hums along on autopilot, its two men doing what they can to elevate a tired routine. They can only take it so far, but the effort’s there in most scenes, and “The Upside” winds up in a paradoxical place — it’s the rare remake that improves on the original without justifying a second round.
“The Upside” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.