Just a few months after Green Book, here comes another story of the friendship between two very different men, one white and one black. The Upside isn't horrible, and its sins are somewhat mitigated by handsome production design and winning chemistry between leads Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart. But there’s nothing particularly memorable about the film.
Based on a true story, which was later made into a popular French film called The Intouchables, The Upside is an old-fashioned, odd-couple culture clash comedy/drama, one that's only intermittently successful.
Cranston stars as a wealthy business guru who's been suicidal since he suffered the one-two punch of being paralyzed in a hang gliding accident, followed by his wife’s death from cancer. Looking for a new caregiver, he hires Hart's borderline-homeless ex-con, even though he has no experience that would qualify him for such a job. Also on hand is Nicole Kidman, highly overqualified for a one-note role as Cranston's uptight business manager.
Sub-plots include Hart’s quest to reconcile with his young son and his mother, and Cranston’s quest to get out and date again, with a prospect played by Julianna Margulies.
There are several elements of Green Book here, albeit set in the present day and with less overt racial material. It's a sophisticated and refined guy served by another guy who's neither, and Hart in this film is Tony Lip levels of obnoxious. Also like Green Book, one of the men helps the other with romantic letters, and there's once again a contentious discussion of Aretha Franklin on the car radio. But wouldn't you know, the two of them have Important Lessons to teach one another.
Directed by Neil Burger, this is tired and nonsensical stuff. Such as the moment when Hart's character, apropos of nothing, suddenly develops a talent for painting just because the plot requires him too. The film also explores some complicated issues, such as whether a wealthy man paralyzed below the neck has it tougher than an able-bodied man who’s poor, but you can tell the screenplay’s heart isn’t quite in it.
Those upset by Hart's anti-gay comments probably won't enjoy a lengthy sequence in which he's afraid to change Cranston's catheter, though to be fair it's hard to imagine anyone else enjoying the scene either. At least it's not Hart's 2015 movie with Will Ferrell, Get Hard, which was just 90 straight minutes of prison rape panic jokes.
The Upside is full of gags that are clichéd, such as the scene where Hart tries to use Cranston's complicated shower and gets confused. That one was on multiple sitcoms, seven or eight years ago. And the cathartic moment at the end doesn't make a lot of sense.
However, there’s some charm in the two leads and their interactions with each other. And Cranston's apartment is one of the more impressive movie sets in memory. The biggest laugh, to me, wasn’t from any of the jokes. Hart and Kidman have a few scenes together, in which she towers over him, to a distracting degree. I haven't seen anything like that since Kidman was married to Tom Cruise and made a couple of movies with him.
The Upside was filmed mostly in Hart's hometown of Philadelphia, although there's no hint of it; presumably the interiors were shot in Philly and the exteriors in New York. If you want to see a film about the unlikely friendship between a wealthy white guy and a streetwise black guy that was filmed in those two same cities, ignore this and watch Trading Places on cable again.