Take John Candy’s lonesome Del Griffith in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” put him through the gritty filter of prestige TV, and pair him with an equally troubled teenage girl (instead of Steve Martin’s upstanding family man) — and bam, you’ve got a good idea of what to expect in “Upright,” Chris Taylor’s Sundance Now road show about a washed up pianist who has to drive across Australia with a teenage stranger. “Upright” fits snugly within the confines of a genre still indebted to John Hughes’ classic comedy, even if it’s more of a drama, a touch heavy on the twists, and not once does anyone mistake someone’s butt-cheeks for pillows.
Tim Minchin, who also serves as a co-writer, co-director, and composer, plays Lochlyn “Lucky” Flynn, an aptly down-on-his-luck ex-member of an Aussie rock band who — through a series of events drip-fed to audiences over eight, half-hour episodes — is now penniless and alone. With nothing but an old piano in tow, Lucky sets off to drive from Sydney to Perth (roughly 2,400 miles) in order to see his dying mother one last time. But before he can get far — and before the audience learns any of this information, including his name — Lucky gets sideswiped by a runaway teenager named Meg (Milly Alcock). The collision breaks the axle on his trailer, and Meg’s arm, so Lucky has no choice but to drive the young lady to the nearest hospital (and toss his piano in the back of her truck).
From there, the two form a reluctant partnership of necessity (just like Del and Neal): He needs a lift across the continent, and she needs someone with two functioning arms to drive. Why, exactly, Meg is also headed to Perth isn’t revealed right away, though audiences will likely figure it out faster than Lucky does. That goes for many of the show’s minor mysteries, many of which are held back as long as possible to keep viewers asking questions instead of accepting these two troubled souls for the familiar folks they prove to be. What is the piano’s significance? What’s wrong with Meg’s father? Who keeps sending Lucky cryptic text messages? What can these two strangers possibly learn from each other? All of the answers are a little less extraordinary than the buildup warrants, though they’re grounded enough to keep the show from spinning out of control.
One of the final and biggest reveals gives our odd couple pairing an added significance that would’ve been worth dropping sooner, if only so there was a little more time to explore those themes onscreen. The same could be said for much of “Upright.” While curiosity is an effective teasing technique — and there are easily enough secrets to fill the four-hour series — some of the human richness to Lucky’s story is lost in hiding his motivation (and Meg’s). “Upright” shines when its two leads are allowed to develop and explore their disparate depression, rather than simply wallow in it. If they’d been given more time to talk openly to one another, perhaps the series would feel more substantial, especially since the chemistry between Minchin and Alcock is entertaining on its own.
Instead, “Upright” stands as a slender work. Enough hijinks ensue to entertain, but you’re rarely given time to appreciate the weight of each regrettable secret. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” understood what it was and made the most of it; the comedy came first, the relationship second, and the moral was saved for the very end. When Neal puts the pieces together about Del’s past, the impact of that moment comes from Neal’s choice to invite Del to dinner more than the reveal of what happened to Del’s wife. The film was about where they’re going, not just where they’ve been. “Upright” maintains that forward momentum, but each shrouded piece of the past can feel like a speed bump, and the finale is so overloaded with melodrama, it threatens to topple the whole endeavor. The journey is what matters, and “Upright” is a little too reliant on getting to its destination.
“Upright” premiered July 21 through the ATX TV Festival. Its first two episodes will be released Thursday, August 6 on Sundance Now. Two new episodes will debut each following week.