Synopsis – A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.
My Take – It is an undeniable fact that remakes are going to be made till the time of civilization, and every successful European film HAS to have an American counterpart. While these English language remakes rarely stand up to the quality of their originals, there have been exceptions like director David Fincher‘s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and director Matt Reeves‘s Let Me In, to name a few.
Last weekend saw the release of this Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) directed film, which is a quintessential inevitable American remake of the 2011 French film, The Intouchables, written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, and based on an autobiography by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo. Produced on a roughly $10M budget, upon release, the film quickly became the second-highest grossing film in French history, and ended its run with almost $426.5M worldwide. However, the road to cinemas for this remake has been quite rocky.
Originally announced in 2011 itself, the production ended up being completed only in 2017, just in time to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received indifferent reviews. Matters turned worse when the producers of the film, Harvey Weinstein and his production company, The Weinstein Company, embroiled in sexual assault allegations leading to eventual bankruptcy.
Thankfully, STX Entertainment and Lantern Entertainment saved the film, a move which as of now have become quite a profitable one. While the film cost around $37.5M to produce, it pulled over $20M in its first weekend to make it the #1 film in America, a first for STX Entertainment.
Will it end up performing as well as its original? Probably not. However, as film it is a pleasant enough in its own right. Sure, it is far from groundbreaking and it’s rather undeniably cliché-ridden, but those downsides don’t come close to making the film unenjoyable. Mainly as a standalone film it has some laugh-out-loud moments, some feel-good highs and some moments of real pathos.
As director Neil Burger capitalizes on Kevin Hart’s comic riffs and Bryan Cranston’s dramatic chops to give us an unlikely pair of friends, and the superb duo make for a variety of well-found laughs. I am aware when the end of the year list, Best of 2019, comes up, most people probably won’t even remember to pick this one, but for what it is, it’s just fine. The performances are great, there are plenty of laughs, and it is heart-warming enough to walk out of the theater feeling pretty good.
The story follows Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), recently released ex-convict who is seeking work just in order to comply with his parole officer. While his relationship with his wife (Aja Naomi King) and his teenage son are reasonably fractured due to his wrong doings, a mix up finds him getting employed as a care taker to Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), a self-made billionaire who found success with investments and writing about such investments. However an accident has left him paraplegic and widowed by a string of bad luck.
While Philip’s chief executive Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is convinced that Philip chose Dell only because he was the very worst candidate imaginable, she accepts it as this decision is most likely to let Phillip shuffle off this mortal coil. Amidst this process, Phillip and Dell form an unlikely bond, bridging their differences and gaining invaluable wisdom in the process, giving each man a renewed sense of passion for all of life’s possibilities.
The story might seem overly sentimental or worse, but surprisingly, the film doesn’t go for either corny melodrama or sitcom style shenanigans, as here, director Neil Burger seems to be aiming for a low-key approach to its theme despite the presence of A list actors. Here, director Neil Burger, making a giant leap from his recent sci-fi flicks hearkens back to his last straight drama The Lucky Ones, but easily blows that previous credit out of the water, as this film has heart, right amount of intensity and is uproaringly funny.
At the center of the film is the friendship formed between Phillip and Dell that makes the film so effective. Philip and Dell seem to have a natural bond right from the get-go, which is both incredibly entertaining and extremely relatable. There’s actual time given for the two to warm up to each other and for trust and comfortableness to build, something that you don’t get often enough in films. It’s a natural relationship that never feels one-sided or unbelievable. Considering how Dell was entirely interested in the job for the nice paycheck and great live-in arrangement, but as the film progresses, we see his character grow and develop.
Ultimately, we see the same with Philip; as the two get to know each other better and spend more time around one another, they break each other out of their shells and turn the other into an overall better and happier person. Most of us have met someone with whom we instantly bonded with over a similar sense of humor.
These relationships where both people ‘get’ each other on a completely platonic level – and who know how to bring the sunshine to someone on a cloudy day with lightning – are the diamonds we spend years seeking and hoping for. For example, Phillip introduces Dell to the worlds of art and opera, and Dell shows Phillip the wonders of weed, hot dogs, and Aretha Franklin.
Agreed, this is nothing unique, clever, or new. This is a dynamic that’s been retold time and time again, that we’ve seen a hundred times over. To tell you this is the same story we’ve seen or heard of numerous times before would be misleading and a complete dismissal of what the film is truly about, and just how enjoyable it actually is. As the film genuinely feels like a film about the fragility of humanity and the healing powers of friendship. We see how fleeting life can be, how seemingly simple moments can break a person, how years of the same bad habits can ultimately prove your eventual demise.
But on the other hand, we also get to see how a deep and understanding friendship can be the glue to repair the cracks on a broken heart. A rare friendship that breeds empathy, compassion, and protection can allow one’s true self to flourish and come alive. In very minute ways, does this story focus on disability? Sure, there are times where you get insight into how Philip feels being in a wheelchair when people don’t look him in the eye, and don’t bother to ask Dell questions about Philip’s preferences when he’s perfectly capable of answering himself. But that really just added special flashes into the film rather than being a central focus. This alone makes for an interesting dynamic.
Many poignant moments within the feature between Scott and Lacasee remind us that everyone deserves to have their voice heard. We are also reminded that there’s such a thing as a second chance in life.
While the film doesn’t miss a beat in the comedy department, it does edge into predictability. As is par for the course in these types of films, especially those based on true stories, it gets a little cliché and pandering at times, following a predictable pattern of boxes to tick. We know the unlikely pair will get off to a rough start. We know they will form a friendship, each learning things from the other that will help their individual situations and become better people as a result. We know there will be some kind of conflict that will lead to a falling out and then an eventual reconciliation complete with swelling music designed to draw tears from the audience. We know it will end on an uplifting note, and it does, quite literally. Even if you have not seen The Intouchables, you’ve seen this film before.
However what makes this film so watchable is the undeniable chemistry between Hart and Cranston who share onscreen chemistry and display impressionable range. Bryan Cranston, as Phillip, delivers a gravitas to his character when needed, as his condition make him hopeless. In only a way Cranston can deliver, his journey to regain hope and optimism through Dell is very compelling. It also helps that their unique banter is just so funny and intellectually executed.
For the first time in a long time, Kevin Hart displays his acting range and doesn’t go full-on Kevin Hart. He’s not loud and screaming every line of dialogue, even for comedic purposes, but is more grounded and human. It’s not his long-awaited drama role that you hoped for, but it is his most charming performance to date. The performance comes across as natural and not at all forced. It’s really nice to see Nicole Kidman in such a quiet and understated role and it’s nicely done. In smaller roles, Aja Naomi King, Goldshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan and Julianna Margulies are good. On the whole, ‘The Upside’ is a heartfelt and enjoyable film, which despite its predictability, is uplifted by Cranston and Hart‘s comedic and emotional edge.
Directed – Neil Burger
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 126 minutes