Everyone’s idea of a life well lived is different. Be it how rich you are, what your home life is like or who you spend your time with, our perspective defines what life we live. The Upside seems to think that each and every one of us is the same, we want the same things from life and they are the same qualities leading men want in any Hollywood blockbuster. This might come across as lazy writing to some people, those people would be right.
The Upside is the story of Dell (Kevin Hart) and Phillip (Bryan Cranston). Dell is a recently released parolee looking for work when he accidentally walks into a job interview to be Phillip’s live in care worker. You see, Phillip is a quadriplegic who needs round the clock care. Phillip hires him, for reasons unknown, much to Dell’s surprise and their odd couple dynamic brings them to do things they didn’t expect of each other, for better and for worse.
That may be a generalisation but honestly there is nothing The Upside handles better than a generalisation. The whole film deals in half measures despite Cranston doing some excellent work here. Accompanied by a sporadically decent Hart, this should be the kind of Hollywood schmaltz that goes down well this time of year. The film finds pathos through individuals but there is no collaboration here, Cranston and Hart don’t mesh the way they should, especially for a film that is essentially a double act.
Bonding the two through comedy works for a spell but when you realise this is the only card that seems to be working it wears off quickly. Each joke is carefully devised not to ruffle feathers. This PG comedy doesn’t fit the subject material and each joke feels like it has been focus grouped to fit in with audiences, not the characters. Based on the french film ‘The Intouchables’, The Upside lacks any of the chemistry or fire that made the original such fun. Playing it safe plays into Phillip’s mentality but it traps Dell and Hart by extension to be less than he could be.
In fact director Neil Burger’s inability to take bold moves, to face his subject material head on damages the film irreparably. Handling Phillip and his condition with kid gloves, Burger structures his film, never letting his actors loose when they clearly want to be set free from the trappings of The Upside’s limited script. Filled with saccharine scheduled moments of bonding, a score that never appreciates the concept of subtlety and a substantial quantity of unpulled plot threads, the irony here is for such an intimately plotted and crafted film, it’s a mess.
Phillip and Dell push each other throughout to be better versions of themselves and while Cranston and Hart bite into these moments of actual depth like hungry animals, they don’t make up for a story that doesn’t understand the characters it is following. These two complex people are whittled down to simple concepts, Phillip despite his condition really just cares about his love life while Dell just wants people to believe in him. Life isn’t this simple, our mistakes and our wants don’t boil down so simply and Burger cherishes this simplicity, most will find it condescending.
I could go on about how Hart’s predictable redemption feels incomplete and never truly justified but it is just one part of the same problem in that this story has been adapted to entertained by taking the elements that made it unique to begin with. This is a story about a man coming out of his shell, ridding himself of the shackles of a constrained life and living again. The irony is that because of the film’s limited script, contrived direction and paint by numbers plotting, Phillip is still stuck in a structured life, one devised by someone who doesn’t know him at all.