1/10 The Upside had its premiere all the way back in September 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was set for distribution March 9 of the next year. Unfortunately, that distribution was being handled by The Weinstein Company, which was hit by a small bit of scandal that October.
The Upside was one of several films dropped from release until another distributor could be found, in this case a partnership between STX Entertainment and The Weinstein Company’s remnants, Lantern Entertainment. Having been spared from the frying pan of The Weinstein Company, The Upside would release right into the fire Jan. 11, 2019, just over a month after star Kevin Hart stepped down as Oscar host a single day after getting the job because of backlash over homosexist tweets and jokes from earlier in his career.
The Upside is the English language remake of 2011 French film The Intouchables, which has also been remade in India and Argentina, about the life of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo. In the film, Phillip Lecasse (Bryan Cranston), a despondent quadriplegic billionaire, hires recent ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) to be his arms and legs as a life auxiliary. Lecasse is hoping that the woefully underqualified Scott, who thought he was applying for a janitor position, will hasten his death, but Scott rejuvenates Lecasse with his exuberance and zest for – well, really, they just split a roach and Lecasse stops being such a bummer.
It’s remarkable how pleasant The Upside is despite the complete absence of a narrative. This movie doesn’t have a fucking ending! It just smashcuts to black at the two hour mark!
Neither character has an arc. Lecasse goes back and forth on his general despondency, but the underlying factor, his completely normal need for human contact, never changes. Scott’s drive to provide for his estranged son and baby-momma gets fulfilled, but he personally never changes either. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, he eventually starts a business in quadriplegic mobility, something that seems to mean nothing to either him or the movie. The quadriplegia is entirely coincidental – he’s just leveraging expertise he gained from a previous job. He could be selling custom mops after having been hired as a janitor, and it would be no different to the movie or to him emotionally.
There are several sound narrative elements running throughout The Upside, but they generally don’t complete. There’s plenty to like about this movie, and it would be wonderful to see what it could have been if someone had identified and corrected the fact that it didn’t have a story.
Hart and Cranston are great and great together, and there’s clearly a strong visual directive coming from director Neil Burger and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, with moody blues and greys tingeing the movie with Lecasse’s and Scott’s bleak outlooks. Bumpy camerawork is used in many of Scott’s scenes to make them feel cheaper, contrasted with the steadier and much better-lit world of Lecasse’s penthouse, which literally towers over Scott’s world.
I think this was meant to be the birth of Kevin Hart: Serious Actor of the Cínema. Known mostly for antic-driven comedic routines both onstage and in a film setting, his brand of comedy has been finding better and better complements, climaxing in his recent roles opposite Dwayne Johnson. With the prestige of The Weinstein Company and the Toronto International Film Festival behind him and starring opposite Bryan Cranston, one of the most respected actors in the business, Hart gives a subdued performance, the kind that reads as a comedic actor showing his sensitive side when really all he’s doing is dialing it back a notch.
He still gets plenty of room to Hart it up, mostly in scenes surrounding Lecasse’s catheter, which also provide him an opportunity to make it very clear that Scott isn’t gay – because his character being gay would be awful, wouldn’t it? A straight man being forced to touch another man’s penis is can’t-miss comedy gold – it’s either hilarious because of how uncomfortable he is, or embarrassing when he turns out to not be uncomfortable because that would be gay, and being gay is something to be ashamed of, right Kevin Hart?
Hart’s insidious reaction to the recent controversy about not-so-recent remarks, seeking martyrdom instead of simply apologizing for some truly disturbing quips, doesn’t hang over The Upside if you don’t go out looking for it, but the no-homo joke trope is an inherently disgusting thing, at once marginalizing gay and bisexual men and reinforcing toxic attitudes toward gayness, and it’s just that much more troublesome knowing that the actor reading those lines has said such horrible things in previous endeavors.
Expected to finish second or third behind Aquaman, The Upside nearly doubled its expectations at the box office this weekend with a surprise No. 1 finish, and there’s another bitter critic/viewer split on Rotten Tomatoes. That might make sense if the movie were funnier – it’s easy to imagine viewers overlooking an incomplete narrative for specific highlight moments, but The Upside doesn’t really have any highlight moments. In a crowded screening, I found myself laughing out loud at several points when the rest of the theater was completely silent.
The growing split between critical and audience reception, a phenomenon that crosses several different films – wait, we’ve hit the 900 word mark. It’s time to smashcut to black.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.