The Upside Is Just Too Retrograde to Be Funny

The latest entry in the “the black guy and the white guy can get along!” canon is The Upside, in which Bryan Cranston plays Phillip, a rich-guy quadriplegic who hires ex-con Dell, played by Kevin Hart, to be his caregiver. Their start is rocky; they have both class and race differences to overcome, not to mention that Phillip, paralyzed from the neck down after a parasailing accident, has no choice but to use a wheelchair. But Dell will soon introduce the opera-loving Phillip to the joys of Aretha Franklin, even as Dell falls a little bit in love with opera himself. He will also learn to perform what he views as the most distasteful task of his job: changing Phillip’s catheter. After a great deal of protestation, accompanied by a series of exaggerated sour-milk faces, Dell learns that touching another man’s penis–in certain controlled circumstances, at least–really isn’t so bad.

Even if you roll your eyes at this example of retrograde homophobia, you might be able to excuse it, especially in a movie as well-intentioned as this one is. But the scene is strange to watch in the context of the controversy now swirling around Hart, who gave up his gig as the host of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony after it came to light that he’d posted a series of homophobic remarks on his Twitter feed in 2010 and 2011. Hart may yet host the Oscars–although for now he says he won’t. But as Dell, Hart’s anti-penis-touching shtick–the wincing, the flailing arms, the wrinkled nose–is too desperate to be funny, and for a time, at least, it jiggles the movie off its footing.

That’s too bad, but it’s also a by-product of the times we’re living in, an era when our perceptions about performers we generally like may follow us into the movie theater, hard as we may try to leave them at the door. Dell’s phallus phobia notwithstanding, The Upside–a remake of the 2011 French film Intouchables, based on a true story and a huge hit in its home country–is neither great nor terrible. It quavers in that middle ground of pictures you think you might watch on a plane someday, and you could make a worse choice.

Directed by Neil Burger, whose previous film was the 2014 young-adult adventure Divergent, it tootles along cheerfully enough on its stretch of predictably laid-out track. Before Dell arrives, Phillip has soured on life. He employs an efficient schoolmarm type, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, in a role that asks little of her), to manage his business affairs, but it’s Dell’s appearance on the scene that really kicks his joie de vivre back into gear.

The rapport between Cranston, so superb at being a crab apple that he could probably do it in his sleep, and Hart, a gifted and energetic performer, has some crackle. But even in that equation Hart presents some problems: his lines tend to hit with the snap of a locker-room towel–they don’t leave much space for his fellow actors. And that’s probably the one factor that derails this otherwise efficient picture more than anything. At one point Phillip surprises Dell by playing an Aretha track he’s never heard before, her “Nessun Dorma” from the 1998 Grammys. “The Queen,” Dell observes, “makes everything better.” He’s not wrong–but even she can do only so much.

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