Perhaps the only surprise in Neil Burger’s remake of 2011 French crowd-pleaser The Intouchables is that it took so long to get Hollywoodised. Taking no chances, The Upside takes Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s heartwarmer and replays it beat for beat. While this slavish approach inherits some of the original’s problems — its adherence to formula, its dubious thematic ideas — it is still an enjoyably well mounted bromance, enlivened by two strong performances from Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart.
The set-up, told through flashback, is simple and effective, throwing together two New Yorkers from different end of the wealth spectrum. At the upscale end is Bryan Cranston’s Phil, a “richer than Jay-Z” author and inventor who has been paralysed from the neck down from a hand-gliding accident and is now ensconced in a Park Avenue penthouse, his life run by cold assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, little screen time but effective). At the downtown end is Dell, a wiseacre ex-con from the projects looking to get back into his good graces of his ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) to see his son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Needing to find a job to please his parole officer, Dell mistakenly turns up for an interview as Phil’s carer and his no nonsense approach lands him the gig. Unqualified nurse comedy antics ahoy!
It's hardly groundbreaking, but Cranston and Hart make it work.
As the relationship develops, The Upside leans into familiar culture-clash fish-out-of-water malarkey. Dell learns about the joys of kumquats and opera, struggles with voice activated showers and there is extended shtick with replacing catheters. On the flip side, Phil discovers fast food, dope and Aretha Franklin. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff but Cranston and Hart make it work. Confined to a wheel chair, Cranston has to convey everything through his face and he etches a man of dignity and gravitas masking deep reserves of weariness and pain through slight changes in expression. As if taking his cue from his co-star, Hart is a much dialed down presence, foregoing his usual frenetic MO to suggest he might develop dramatic chops in the future.
It’s a film that offers little in the way of shocks, plus its tone deaf subtext — that privileged white men just need a black court jester to keep them happy — belongs to a different era. Also, in the third act, when the story needs to complicate the buddy-buddy relationship, the engineering of the drama rings false. But Burger, an unlikely choice for a feel good fish out of water charmer given The Illusionist and Limitless, renders Phil’s world in slick visuals without ever diluting the laughs and warmth. Its charms are simple, possibly outdated but effective.