“The Upside” pulled off quite the upset at the box office this past weekend. Many pundits predicted that “Aquaman” would be #1 again by a significant margin, and the interesting battle among new releases would be for #2, with “A Dog’s Way Home” being the overdog in the fight. But I couldn’t help but notice that my Thursday night screening of “The Upside” was more crowded than usual, and it came as no surprise that the film not only beat out “A Dog’s Way Home,” it dethroned “Aquaman” as well.
It really shouldn’t be so shocking, star Kevin Hart opened the shabby “Night School” to $27 million last September, he can certainly open a better movie to $19 million now. Hart’s career has been rocked by scandal lately, with some inappropriate tweets from his past coming to light and forcing him to step down as host of the Oscars. Many said that the controversy would hurt the new film’s business, and who knows, maybe it could have done significantly better without it. But it didn’t take a big enough bite out of Hart’s audience for the film to lose in its opening weekend, meaning that Hart is still a viable box office draw.
Hart stars as Dell Scott, an ex-con in need of a job. He sneaks into an interview to be a “life auxiliary” (basically a live-in nurse) for quadriplegic billionaire Philip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). For reasons that are never made completely clear, the grouchy Philip agrees to hire Dell, much to the chagrin of his assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). Dell wasn’t taking the application seriously, and soon finds himself over his head in a world of wheelchairs, spoon-feeding, breathing machines, and catheters. The job is definitely not his cup of tea, but he needs the money to support his estranged family.
Dell and Philip are forced to work together, and they butt heads at first. Dell knows he doesn’t belong in Philip’s slice of high society, but he takes Philip and Yvonne to task for their subtly condescending attitudes. Eventually Dell and Philip form a bond, with Dell coming to appreciate opera and a strong work ethic, and Philip liking some modifications Dell makes to his wheelchair and medication regimen (hint: after taking the new treatment for the first time, Philip orders fifteen hot dogs to scarf down). The two are getting along swimmingly when Philip’s pen pal (Julianna Margulies) enters the picture and causes a rift from which neither man may ever recover.
The film is a remake of a French film called “The Intouchables,” and it’s probably for the best that I haven’t seen it. Apparently the original is far superior and makes this American version look hollow and manipulative by comparison. I didn’t feel that way about this movie, at least not to the point where I wouldn’t recommend it. I found the Hart and Cranston characters to be engaging enough, though perhaps not as much as the mismatched pair in “Green Book,” the other culture-clash dramedy that’s out right now. If you haven’t seen that film yet, consider it a higher priority than this.
It’s true that “The Upside” doesn’t break any new ground in any of its genres – Unlikely Friendship, Fish Out of Water, Disabled Person in Need of Love, etc. But it has two good performances at its center; from Cranston, who we all know is capable of great work, and from Hart, showing a more mature side that I’d like to encourage in the future (though a scene where he freaks out over a catheter shows us that he hasn’t completely moved on from being an obnoxious albatross). The downside is that this is subject matter you’ve probably seen before, the upside is that it’s a decent treading of that subject matter.
“The Upside” is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use. Its running time is 126 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.