“The Upside” Review: Not as painful as swapping catheters

The Upside The Upside

Kevin Hart tackles drama while Bryan Cranston learns what quadriplegic life is like in this schmaltzy but well-intentioned tale.

(This review was originally posted on Alcohollywood.)

Midway through The Upside, we learn that Bryan Cranston‘s frustrated and mopey quadriplegic Philip is involved in as old-fashioned a romantic companionship as can be for the modern era; exchanging letters with a woman he has not so much even seen a picture of, and vice versa. Dell (Kevin Hart, who can now be added to the ever-growing list of comedians that surprisingly function fine in a dramatic environment that also plays to the performer’s strengths, which I suppose here is woefully mistimed homophobic humor centered on penises while swapping out catheters, and the more fortuitous pleasantry that the actor exudes easy-going warmth and an increasingly genuine amount of care that is required for someone in a life auxiliary position) instantaneously becomes convinced that this woman has already researched Phillip’s appearance online and that he should do the same.

This is one of the few layered moments of The Upside for multiple reasons – Dell’s lowbrow humor about who Philip could be flirting with is tempered by the implication that his parachuting injury has left him without the confidence to fully embrace his new being. This is amplified by the fact that the lovey-dovey poems he sends his hopeful flame come from other authors and not his own intelligent mind. But coming slightly over an hour into the film, it immediately registers that this complicated dilemma should probably have been more of a major focus, especially considering how the subsequent events inform and tie into the feel-good climax (trust me, I didn’t spoil anything there).

That’s also the biggest problem with The Upside: it’s perfectly content doing the bare minimum to explore caretaking responsibilities for the disabled. You have your tried-and-true, predictable gags like Kevin Hart failing at basic feeding; wondering how he is supposed to deadlift Bryan Cranston from his bed to his far-too-outdated-and-generic-for-a-man-supposedly-richer-than-Jay-Z wheelchair; the aforementioned bit where replacing a catheter suddenly becomes about the TERRIFYING nature of looking at a dick which just as quickly becomes awkward considering the current controversy of the actor’s briefly coveted duties as Academy Awards host; beard-shaving; showering that becomes a waterboarding experience due to Dell’s initial ineptitude; and whatever else I’m forgetting. The Upside is more about the camaraderie and budding friendship between this unlikely pair, simultaneously juxtaposing societal classes and even white privilege to an extent during one encounter with the police.

In other words, this is the Green Book of disability films, right down to the examination of the relationship barriers between disabled and able-bodied people. Director Neil Burger (Divergent) is here to tell you ‘they’, or in the case of this disabled critic, I*, have it hard, offering no answers in the process. This is punctuated by your standard happy Hollywood ending that is meant to make audiences feel better about themselves and how they treat people with disabilities, even if the movie actually solves nothing. Here’s the thing: I’m not necessarily looking for the film to provide answers. But stick to your guns before copping out with nauseating feel-good nonsense.

Also, in case you’re wondering why I seem to be talking about Kevin Hart more than anyone, the narrative (based on the French version of the story titled The Intouchables originally written by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, reworked here by Jon Hartmere) is primarily from Dell’s perspective. He’s the one that stumbles into such a sensitive gig despite having nowhere near the proper credentials, has an unnecessary and superfluous family arc where everything he does is for the sake of making up for lost time/spending more time with his estranged adolescent son, goes to great lengths to remind Philip of life’s joys, and of course, makes up the majority of the humor. Once again, Kevin Hart is not bad in the role; it’s probably the best thing he’s ever done as an actor. However, in the same way black people must feel that a movie such as Green Book is mostly about a white guy learning that “racism is bad, mmmkay“, The Upside overlooks analyzing disabilities or 24/7 caretaking in any meaningful way. There’s a part where Philip talks about taking medication for some burning sensation he feels in his legs at night while trying to sleep, but it ends up being a throwaway scene adding nothing to the story, and more importantly, the character.

As for the hot-button issue of Bryan Cranston taking on the role of a quadriplegic, he’s fine in the role; it’s neither his best nor worst effort. Could a real disabled actor have brought something more memorable and gripping to the table? Possibly, but not all of those casting decisions yield a filmmaker something as riveting as The Rider, and I, as a disabled film critic, fully stand by and share Bryan Cranston’s belief that acting is about embodying all sorts of different characters that one might have nothing in common with (but that’s another discussion for a different article). At the very least, he does a damn good job driving a motorized wheelchair with a chin-controlled joystick mechanism, something I’m not sure I could even do whether or not I had the mobility. If there’s any reason The Upside doesn’t fall flat on its backside, it’s due to Hart and Cranston’s surprising chemistry, and its gripping and unfortunately sad depiction of the realities of dating for the disabled.

Also, Nicole Kidman is totally wasted in this movie. When the script finally finds her a purpose, it’s too little too late; she needs more of a character to believably play her role during the ending of the movie, and less terribly written scenes of her spouting off baseball terminology in relation to Dell’s handling of the caretaking job. Everyone seems to have entered this project with well-meaning intentions, but The Upside chooses to crowd-please rather than seriously explore its subject,. Still, considering the talent in front of the camera, it might have been a mistake for them to try delving deeper.

*It’s not fun being told on an online dating app that you might be the coolest person ever, prefaced by a somewhat insulting hard friend zone speech making note of physical attraction. Apparently the stigma still exists that disabled people can’t fuck or something like that.

The Upside rolls into theaters Friday, January 11th.

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