The Upside

Rating:

Better than fiction

Main Cast: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart

Director: Neil Burger

A number of years ago, counter to my instinctive avoidance of subtitles, I watched a French movie called The Intouchables. In typical fashion when I ignore my instincts, I loved it. When an American version came along I once again followed my instincts and turned up my nose. Apparently I will never learn, because I really liked The Upside. My instincts are, perhaps, terrible.

The Intouchables and The Upside (as well as a documentary and two additional films – one Argentinian and one Indian) tell the real story of the enormously wealthy Phillipe Pozzo di Borgo, who was paralyzed in an accident. In The Upside he is Phillip Lacasse (played by Brian Cranston). Despondent and depressed, he hires an entirely unsuitable caregiver in the form of Dell (Kevin Hart). Dell is recently out of prison and is really just looking for someone to sign his form saying he applied for a janitorial job. He has no intention of being hired as a caregiver and only the ample paycheck convinces him to stay on the job. The two men form an unexpected bond despite their very different lives and the challenges dealt to both.

I know, I know – it sounds so sappy! And maybe if it wasn’t based on a true story it would feel sappy. But it is, and it doesn’t. The Upside manages to capture the humor and poignancies of The Intouchables (and presumably di Borgo’s original memoir – A Second Wind) in large part because of the performances of Hart and Cranston. This is a story that is going to succeed or fail based on the chemistry of the leads and they deliver. I was dubious of Hart in the role of Dell, but Cranston elevates both actors and we get an unexpectedly touching and layered performance from Hart. Cranston is a personal favorite, but I think even he takes it up a notch here, playing Phillip with pathos and humor and heart wrenching vulnerability. We need Dell to help Phillip, because we adore Phillip.

Supporting the leads is a terrific performance from Nicole Kidman as Yvonne, Phillip’s assistant. She is protective and reserved and has absolutely no patience for Dell, whose hiring she sees as absolute foolishness. Kidman does a nice job with what could be a really thankless role. Despite being a clearly supporting character in the film, Yvonne isn’t relegated to an afterthought. It’s clear that her real life counterpart played a big role in this story and Kidman’s portrayal respects her commitment to her friend and employer.

The Upside places Phillip and Dell’s story in New York City and though the city itself is not a huge part of the film, when they venture out the filmmakers do a really nice job adapting the story to the contours of a new city. Directed by Neil Burger (who also directed The Illusionist and Limitless), the film doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Burger is smart enough to know that the source material is the heart of the film and doesn’t diverge significantly. It’s a smart play – the story itself is wonderful, it’s all about how you decide to tell it. I don’t think this version is quite as good as The Intouchables, primarily because Omar Sy set an impossibly high bar that Kevin Hart doesn’t quite reach.  Regardless, The Upside is a very good film adaptation of a story that clearly resonates across cultures. I rented the DVD but at the time of this writing the movie was also streaming on Showtime.

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