A former Weinstein Company asset that was shelved until STX Entertainment gave it unnecessary second life, “The Upside” is Neil Burger’s cloying remake of French global phenomenon, “The Intouchables.” Like its progenitor, the buddy-dramedy burrows a little too comfortably in its blissful ignorance. While improving the racial politics of its selling relationship, this American iteration still exploits the disabled community for the self-aggrandizement of its wider able-bodied audience.
Rather than cast an actor with quadriplegia, Bryan Cranston snatches the role of Phillip Lacasse under some misguided sense of “getting-it-right” honor. Kevin Hart’s participation in such problematic material isn’t going to help his current predicament, though it behooves me to admit he gives the film’s strongest performance (aside from a divine cameo surprise). Hart convincingly portrays an ex-convict seeking personal growth to reconcile with his estranged family. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman sacrifices character agency for youthful peppiness, her arc in literal full service of her onscreen employer.
In an effort to stay out of jail, Dell Scott (Hart) conducts a daily routine of collecting signatures that certify attempts at employment. Although his non-committal attitude isn’t winning points with his parole officer, Dell is hoping something worthwhile comes along. He shares a son, Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), with ex-girlfriend Latrice (Aja Naomi King) whom he owes a substantial amount of child support to. The single mother is raising her adolescent boy in a dilapidated studio apartment nestled within a poor Philadelphia neighborhood.
Thankfully, fate delivers with haste. Dell reverses his misfortune during an accidental job interview with Phillip Lacasse (Cranston), a wealthy man living in the penthouse suite of a downtown hotel he likely owns. Lacasse is paralyzed in all four limbs and requires a live-in caregiver in addition to his cook, secretary and physical therapist. Despite the protestation of his devoted secretary, Yvonne (Kidman), Lacasse hires the unassuming and confused Dell, who thought he was applying for a custodian position. Yvonne is unrelenting in her stipulations, promising a “three strikes” dismissal of services if Dell falls below standards.
One upside to Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch’s script is that you never get the sense that Hart’s Dell lacks the drive or capacity to turn his financial destitution around. Meeting Lacasse is pure happenstance to service the drama; it’s less to do with finding missing emotional components from a stranger. Furthermore, the two don’t share as codependent a friendship as “The Intouchables’” Phillippe and Driss (François Cluzet and Omar Sy, respectively). Dell and Lacasse’s companionship serves as a mutual reminder of the treasures they didn’t realize were always within proximity. If anything, “The Upside” should have enriched the fractured relationship between Dell and his son. Exploring the lingering emotional consequences of growing up black, poor and fatherless due to unjust imprisonment sentencing would have been a thematically complex alternative to the degradation of minority groups that’s provided instead.
The writers and director just can’t help but milk the stage personas of Hart and Cranston to offensive degree. For example, there’s a slightly homophobic exchange during a scene requiring Dell to change Phillip’s catheter. It plays for outdated laughs but derives none. Later in the movie, there’s a short montage of Hart grooming Cranston’s beard into different styles, culminating in an anti-Semitic moment that had everyone in the press screening room sitting in uncomfortable silence. It’s disheartening to think these jokes passed early test audience reactions. More infuriating is how nobody stepped up and reminded anyone of the time period they belong to.
Worsening matters is the ableism that ekes out during a crucial scene where Phillip finally meets the pen pal he’s been exchanging love letters with. The screenplay botches what could have been a nuanced learning moment about idealistic expectation versus reality when it comes to able-bodied and disabled dating.
Rather than stress the importance of communication, research and lifestyle preparation between grown adults, the script makes Phillip come off like a petulant womanizer whose ego is bruised after his date goes awry. To have the seemingly “ideal partner” in front of Phillip and still be rejected in the end — emphasized by her waning patience to wipe the edges of his mouth after each bite — is a double-edged sword of cruelty. Viewers with disabilities should never be made to feel like their unhappiness is the byproduct of a poor attitude, their permanent condition or a failure to appease the able-bodied folks around them.
Although “The Upside” has fleeting moments of sincerity, it ultimately perpetuates a deeper systemic problem of the insensitive lengths taken to justify entertainment. Until Hollywood finally recognizes its century-long misrepresentation of the disabled community, it’s doomed to repeat such extreme prejudice. Thanks to Naomi Geraghty’s breezy editing and a flashback structure that absorbs interest in catching up to the present day, the film flows rapidly at just over two hours. The abrupt ending is actually a blessing; however, the refusal to label a certain relationship will polarize viewers, leading some to justifiably view it as an egregious cop-out. Through it all, Kevin Hart demonstrates a genuine desire to mature his craft, and hopefully that extends beyond the screen.
“The Upside” Is Distributed By STX Entertainment And Opens In Theaters On Jan. 11.