Timing is everything — in comedy and film. Three months ago, director Neil Burger‘s The Upside might have won some over. Three years ago, the comedy might have won over many. But in this more enlightened period, Burger’s The Intouchables’ remake (2011) starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston has rightly had all excuses stripped from the venture. The Upside — a tone deaf, ill timed, and messy comedy — is a film no one: not even Hart, wants right now.
The plot for most of The Upside matches the French film, for which it’s a remake of, Les Intouchables’. A wealthy quadriplegic named Philip (Bryan Cranston) hires a young black male, Dell (Kevin Hart), with a criminal record to be his caregiver. Dell doesn’t want the gig and has no experience as a caregiver, but takes the job because he wants to stay out of jail. The divergences from The Intouchables‘, initially, arrive in the small details of each character. In both films, Philip became quadriplegic because of a hang gliding accident and is made miserable and lonely because of his wife’s death. In the French film there is a niece, here, she’s subtracted and Philip is made more secluded. Dell hails from the projects, but here the sub-plot of a neglected spouse and son are added as well as Hart’s comedic stylings.
Though Dell uses unorthodox methods in caring for Philip, he soon gains the billionaire’s trust and wins over Philip’s incredulous assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). Dell teaches Philip to love living again and to look for love. The plot, if such four-letter words must be applied to The Upside, appears loving. However, the result tumbles down to the levels of contrived and unstable.
The film runs for 126 minutes. You will feel every one of those minutes, as screenwriter Jon Hartmere needlessly inserts subplots that amount to nothing and are resolved all too quickly. There’s one where Hart steals a copy of Huckleberry Finn, which he gives to his son, but was a gift to Philip from his deceased wife. A moment that should turn the film, that should explore Philip and Dell’s relationship, goes all for naught. Even a subplot borrowed from The Intouchables, when Philip meets his epistolary fling (Julianna Margulies), becomes mangled and toothless in the hands of Hartmere and Burger. The endless raising of stakes with no buyers causes dysfunction and apathy to occur for any viewer.
Some of Hart’s gags do hit, allowing some modicum of entertainment, but mostly they veer into the uncomfortable. There’s one moment where Dell must replace Philip’s catheter and he remarks that he doesn’t want to touch another man’s penis. The “joke” is extended (no pun intended) for entirely too long (another pun not intended). With Hart’s recent Oscar hosting kerfuffle stemming from his bigoted views on homosexuality, the scene is the worst timed moment since Woody Allen released a film about a sexual liaison with a stepdaughter during #MeToo.
A film in this much disarray shouldn’t take on the topic of disabilities, but here we are. More so than The Intouchables, The Upside ties Philip’s self worth to women. The trope isn’t uncommon. As recently as Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018), we witnessed a quadriplegic man who felt he should die because no one would dare love him. Philip doesn’t see a life without his wife, which is an understandable moment of heartbreak and mourning, but also doesn’t view himself as human without a woman who sees him as such. “I don’t feel anything. I can’t feel anything,” Philip bitterly tells Dell. The moment is horrible and reduces those with disabilities to objects, as does the “comedy.” Philip complains about those who make him feel invisible, however, the film only allows him to be visible enough to act as a comedic punching bag. The joke isn’t solely Dell’s inability to do his job — assisting the disabled — the joke is the job. That’s a massive issue that only serves to demean others.
The Upside never finds a rhythm, even Nicole Kidman (who appears to be on the Robert DeNiro train of taking paychecks to pay for pet projects) can’t save the film (comedy really isn’t her forte). As a matter of fact, nor can the professionalism of Cranston. Nevertheless, there was nothing that could have saved The Upside, except not being made. Its existence is unfortunate for us and Kevin Hart.