Stories about unlikely friendships have long been catnip for moviemakers, as the juxtaposition between people from different worlds is an easy way to manufacture drama. But when it’s a relationship between people of different races, as is the case in The Upside, filmmakers must tread carefully so as not to come off as trite or offensive.
A remake of the 2011 French film Les Intouchables, which itself was based on a true story, The Upside marries the stories of Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a rich, well-known author who has become a paraplegic, and Dell (Kevin Hart), an ex-con who’s trying to get back on his feet. Phillip is looking for a new live-in “life auxiliary” to help with daily tasks like getting out of bed and eating. Dell, going through the motions of looking for a job to satisfy his parole officer, stumbles onto the opportunity after Phillip takes a shine to Dell’s brashness.
After some initial awkwardness, the two start to get on famously, much to the chagrin of Phillip’s executive assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). Dell starts to bring out a side of Phillip that had disappeared following his accident and the death of his wife. In turn, Phillip gives Dell not only a means to support his son, Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), and Latrice (Aja Naomi King), Anthony’s mother, but also a newfound self-respect.
Directed by Neil Burger and written by Jon Hartmere, the film overcomes a rough start to ultimately become a winner. Knowing what their lane is, the filmmakers elide almost all conversations about race, instead focusing lightly on class and personality differences. Phillip may be white and Dell may be black, but in the context of the film, it’s how each man looks at the world and treats each other that actually matters.
One of the things that makes the movie work is that the filmmakers never push too hard in one direction or another. The story is relatively simple and the characters never truly have any difficult decisions to make, but there’s something to be said for just letting a story play out without going for unnecessary emotional moments.
The biggest thing the film has going for it is its abundance of wealth in the acting department. Cranston, a four-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, knows how to play virtually any role, and he doesn’t hit a false note here. Hart is underrated as an actor, and he does much more than just play the comic relief, showing some nice range.
There’s really no need for Kidman to play this particular role, but her presence elevates every scene she’s in. Even small roles are filled with gifted actors like Julianna Margulies, Aja Naomi King, and Golshifteh Farahani, lending the film as a whole a sheen it otherwise might not have had.
The Upside won’t blow your socks off, but thanks to the talents of a bunch of fine actors and a story that never tries to overreach, it's a pleasant experience that allows movie lovers to bide their time between awards season and when the 2019 movie year really gets going.