The 2011 French inspirational drama The Intouchables, based loosely on the real-life story of wealthy quadriplegic businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caregiver, was an international sensation and remains one of the most successful movies of all time in its native country, so the only surprising thing about the new American remake The Upside is that it took so long (there have already been versions made in India and Argentina). Screenwriter Jon Hartmere and director Neil Burger stick pretty close to the cloying formula of the original movie, and The Upside is corny and contrived from beginning to end.
The movie’s two lead actors do their best to elevate the material, though, and to fill in for original stars François Cluzet and Omar Sy, and whatever meager charm the movie has is thanks to their efforts. Bryan Cranston plays multi-millionaire investor and author Phillip Lacasse, who’s been paralyzed from the neck down since being injured in a paragliding accident, and generally lives a miserable life despite being fabulously rich. Phillip has just fired the latest in a string of “life auxiliaries” when he meets ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), who accidentally stumbles into an interview for what he thinks is a janitorial job.
Phillip and Dell are your basic odd-couple pairing, and their journey from antagonists to best friends is painfully predictable, and not only for people who’ve seen The Intouchables. Phillip teaches Dell to appreciate opera, while Dell teaches Phillip to appreciate Aretha Franklin. The focused, successful Phillip helps Dell get his life back on track following his stint in prison, and the free-spirited Dell helps the uptight Phillip learn to appreciate life again. There’s a lot of broad fish-out-of-water comedy as Dell gets used to Phillip’s upper-class lifestyle, and then when Dell takes Phillip out of his fancy high-rise and into the ’hood.
The Upside is not especially progressive in its portrayal of race or disability, and Dell’s background is filled with stereotypes, from his prison time to his neglected relationship with his son. The eventual solutions are as simplistically presented as the original problems, and there’s very little satisfaction to seeing Phillip or Dell overcome difficulties in entirely predetermined ways. An opening flash-forward all but assures the audience that any disagreements or divisions between the two won’t amount to anything.
Hart tones down his manic comic persona just enough to give Dell some depth, although he still gets to cut loose in irritating set pieces involving Dell’s use of a fancy German shower and his squeamishness over changing Phillip’s catheter. Cranston brings the right amount of warmth to Phillip so that he doesn’t just seem like a callous rich jerk, and the two actors have occasional moments of enjoyable chemistry. But even those moments are so blatantly manipulative that they don’t provide any genuine positivity.
The movie’s sitcom-style characterization and plotting fit in with its flat, cheap sitcom-level cinematography. The aggressively uplifting messages and bonding between two unlikely friends come off as phony as the green-screened view of New York City from Phillip’s penthouse balcony.