About midway through watching The Upside, it all seemed eerily familiar. The down on his luck black ex-convict befriending a wealthy quadriplegic white man seemed like a story I’d seen or heard recently. It all made sense when I learned that The Upside is just an American remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, about an unlikely friendship between quadriplegic billionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker Abdel Sellou, based on a real story. Unfortunately, this American retelling is more schmaltz than substance.
This time around, Paris becomes New York, Phlippe becomes Phillip (Bryan Cranston), and Abdel becomes Dell (Kevin Hart). The two leads have good chemistry together. Though Hart is playing a slightly subdued version of himself, as he always does, Cranston manages to convey intensity and humor through facial expressions alone. A feat that many disabled activists took issue with, as they would've preferred the role go to a disabled actor. Nicole Kidman also appears in a smaller role as Cranston’s executive, Yvonne, but feels wasted here in a small role without much to do.
The Upside is a perfectly fine film. It leans heavily on simple humor and schmaltz. There’s absolutely nothing unexpected here. Dell and Phillip, though they’ve led very different lives, strike up an unlikely friendship that is both heartwarming and completely boring. Dell learns to love opera! Phillip loves being driven in his fancy cars again! There are the expected jokes about the duties of a caretaker when it comes to, well, doody.
It all contributes to the feeling that they’ve achieved the bare minimum. Music swells as the two laugh together, Phillip getting his zeal for life back and Dell getting a big fat paycheck. Perhaps Dell cares about the friendship, too, but Hart’s wooden dramatic moments never quite convince that he’s in this for more than just the money.
I’ve never seen The Intouchables, so I can’t say whether the original was better. What is supposed to be uplifting and heartwarming becomes so flattened, and so schmaltzy, that I have to imagine that France did it better in 2011. Cranston and Kidman do what they can, and Hart tries his hardest, but the film never rises above predictable.