“The Upside” Review

Director: Neil Burger | Screenwriter: Jon Hartmere | Cast: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman | Distributor: STX Entertainment | Running Time: 126 min. | MPAA Rating: PG-13

I partially knew what I was in for with a film like The Upside. Prepared for the most milquetoast of melodrama, I grabbed a coffee and sat back hoping to be won over by the chemistry of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. The coffee was a mistake as I found myself so baffled by the poor filmmaking layered on top of banal laughs and hokey drama that I wondered why the rest of the audiences seemed to be rolling with laughter. I wish I had whatever they were drinking.

Based on a true story, Cranston plays the rich New Yorker Phillip Lacasse, a man who believes his life is over after a paragliding accident causes him to be paralyzed from the neck down. He has amassed a decadent penthouse of priceless art, novels, and cars, but more than anything wishes his wife didn’t pass away. He pushes away everyone, including his assistant played by Nicole Kidman who kinda has a thing for him, hidden behind her glasses and strictly-business attitude.

Into Phillip’s life comes Dell, played by Kevin Hart in a role that at least turns down his volume if not keep his meandering comedy a little tighter on the lips. Dell is the least qualified and has a history of thievery and being unable to afford child support. But Phillip takes a chance, charmed by Dell’s misunderstanding of the interview, believing he was applying for a janitorial position. And you can probably fill in the rest of the blanks for how this story will go about its predictable beats of two different souls learning from each other in terms of culture and business.

This film could do with much more simplicity for how it reworks the French film The Intouchables for an American audience. There’s way too much going on here and little of it is unique or even pays off. A perfect example of this is Dell’s ultimate goal of going from a felon on parole to a business owner, striving to find that perfect business idea. Phillip tries to help him along by turning him on to the likes of paintings and opera but what Dell ultimately lands on is so left-field for featuring little to no build up. Far too much time is spend meandering around these cultural discoveries and Kevin Hart getting into silly antics of a shower he doesn’t understand, so unoriginally conceived the misread digital dials spoken in German are more of a given than a surprise.

In search of laughs, the film does its best to spin chemistry between Cranston and Hart that is present but rarely reaches its pique, a frustrating aspect of nearly every Kevin Hart buddy picture. The lowest of comedy is extended for a sequence where Hart grapples with the act of changing Cranston’s catheter, too homophobic and grossed out by penises he can’t even say the word penis without being queasy. Later scenes will feature Cranston getting high and ordering a lot of food. Arriving right on schedule is a distancing between the two when the bitterness springs and harsh words are exchanged. And there will be plenty of blurry flashbacks and somber montages to pluck those heartstrings as well as this film can with a worn pick.

Aside from feeling so stock with its balance of comedy and drama, the film is remarkably messy from a technical standpoint. The camera is often bumped and shaken during certain scenes to such a degree I wondered if some of the sudden bumps were accidents never fixed. The editing is sloppy, making awkward cuts for the same shot and the third act a mess of swirling footage that confuses with context.

The film has come under a bit of controversy for choosing Bryan Cranston over an actual paralyzed actor. I gotta say that I’m for this type of casting, if only so such an actor can add more to this story than this tired and artificial excuse for dramedy. I’m afraid that I gotta file this film under a new category a fellow critic I know coined after seeing the equally sloppy Breathe: disability porn, where being bound to a wheelchair is treated more for a dramatic focal point than a human story.

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