Movie Review: ‘THE UPSIDE’ – Hart and Cranston lead ​a hokey story rooted in stereotypes

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James C. Clay // Film Critic

THE UPSIDE

Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Marguiles

THE UPSIDE reminds me of a quote from another ridiculous movie called BILLY MADISON, one of Adam Sandler’s first starring roles. It reads as follows: “Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

The original French production called THE INTOUCHABLES was a fairly innocuous, if not mildly inspiring buddy comedy that wound up being the highest grossing film in the history of French cinema. Its American counterpart, THE UPSIDE, is a film that egregiously manipulates its audience into a saccharine story about interracial friendships and economic disparity. It has about as much insight into its themes as a Big Mac and fries. If this is the film nourishment you are looking for, keep searching, because finding a kernel of truth in Neil Burger’s (DIVERGENT) directorial effort will have you starved for something, anything else. Give me MAID IN MANHATTAN before you give me THE UPSIDE.

THE UPSIDE tells the “true story” of two men who come together in an unlikely pairing and teach each other about life, friendship and how not to throw tantrums when you don’t get your way. Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a wealthy man who has been confined to a wheelchair after an accident took the use of his arms and legs. While in the process of searching for a “life auxiliary” to take care of his daily needs – from feeding him breakfast, to removing his catheter (more on that later) – he and his executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), stumble upon ne’er-do-well Dell (Kevin Hart), who is looking for a job to appease his parole officer and get closer with his son. (Spoiler alert! They bond and teach each other about life through their own quirky personalities.)

This is a grossly condescending piece of work that wastes the talent in front of the camera by neglecting to create anything that’s remotely inspiring behind the scenes. There are ways to forgive frivolous behavior, but not like this. These characters only exist to perpetuate stereotypes that are apparently unbeknownst to the creators. Essentially Burger and screenwriter Paul Feig (A SIMPLE FAVOR) are saying if you’re a person of color and you are having problems in life, just go find a rich white man and cater to his needs – crack a few jokes and all your problems will be solved. Cranston and Hart gleefully play their parts… to the detriment of the audience watching.

Kevin Hart, left, and Bryan Cranston star in THE UPSIDE. Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment.

It would be foolish to think at this point to look for any remote change in Hart’s onscreen presence when he reportedly refuses to change off screen. His film is about being an ally for those in need while learning how to be the best version of yourself you can be. A good message, for sure; but when the film in question directly conflicts with the ideals of its stars, an already problematic film rings completely inauthentic.

In one cringe-inducing scene, Dell must change the catheter of his friend Phillip and he can’t even utter the word “penis.” He is so blinded and fearful of having to interact with Philip’s genitals, he gags and can hardly make eye contact. Immediately following the scene is a shot of Dell walking up to Phillip’s penthouse with two scantily clad women on each of his arms. Given the recent comments by Mr. Hart and his lack of apologies to the LGBTQ community, it seems the actor truly is frightened by the notion of such a scene and is no doubt spreading a message of homophobia, plain and simple. 

There is room for easygoing films about unlikely people becoming friends. But when it comes to THE UPSIDE, we’re just supposed to smile and forget that these systemic issues exist? Films like this give feel-good comedies a very bad name. This enraging piece of cinema will feel the scorn of its willfully out of touch tendencies. But let’s be honest, nobody cares.

Grade: D

THE UPSIDE opens nationwide on Friday (1/11)/.