Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: "The Upside"

I did not expect to enjoy "The Upside" as much as I did. It's an American adaptation of one "The Intouchables," of the highest-grossing French films of all time, which in turn was inspired by a documentary about a real wealthy man who is quadriplegic and bonded with a caretaker of African descent with a troubled past.

It's been "Hollywooded up" to the nth degree, filled with easy emotional entry points and cathartic moments you can almost time with a stopwatch.

And yet, doggone it, I couldn't help being engrossed by the story.

It stars two accomplished funnymen, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, who are at different stages of seguing into more dramatic material. Cranston was known -- and dismissed -- for years as "the dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle' before going dark in "Breaking Bad." After a recent Oscar nomination, he's now pretty much universally regarded as a serious actor.

Hart is just taking his first steps along such a path, but I like his stride so far. I wonder if he would ever completely leave behind his stand-up comedian roots in the way that, say, Robin Williams did. I tend to doubt it. But I liked watching him stretch for something more than a laugh.

Hart plays Dell Scott, who's been in and out of prison most of his life. He's currently half-heartedly looking for a job. Asked at a burger joint what his greatest accomplishment is, he says getting out of bed this morning. He's more interested in collecting signatures to prove to his parole officer that he made an effort than actually securing employment.

He wanders into a swanky apartment building after a janitor job and winds up in the penthouse, where billionaire investment expert/author Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his right-hand executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), are interviewing candidates to be his "life auxiliary." This is fancy rich-people talk for a 24/7 caretaker, who will do everything from dress, bathe and feed Phillip to being his companion when he goes out in public in his high-end electric chair.

Phillip became a quadriplegic years earlier in a parasailing accident -- if ever there was a quintessentially wealthy person's endeavor, it's parasailing -- and lost his wife to cancer around the same time. Although he has an incredible penthouse, a best-selling book ("The Lateral Way"), a garage full of fancy cars and every wall has expensive art on it, Phillip doesn't have much zest for living anymore.

He impulsively hires the puckish Dell because he's the worst person for the job, and Phillip is looking to die. He instructs Dell about his DNR, immediately followed by explaining what a DNR is.

Dell is an interesting character. He's a guy who has never had much demanded out of him in life, and has fallen down to people's expectations. He's estranged from his son, Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), and ex-wife, Latrice (Aja Naomi King). Kicked out of his pad and way behind in child custody payments, he steals a book from Phillip's library to give to his son for his birthday.

"Which one?" Anthony demands, knowing that his father probably isn't even aware when it is.

Things go from there. Phillip and Dell slowly form a bond based on harsh truth-telling, which goes both ways. Phillip introduces him to opera and Dell helps him get funky. Yvonne is the hardcase looking for any excuse to fire Dell, but gradually warms up.

There's an implication of a potential romance between Yvonne and Phillip, which they both strenuously deny. The movie, directed by Neil Burger from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, toys around with the idea without ever giving it a complete workout. I'd like to think they could share a deep and abiding friendship without there having to be romantic entanglements involved.

Meanwhile, Phillip does have a female pen pal he corresponds with, exchanging lovely poetry and sentiments. Phillip dubs it an "epistolary relationship," which is how smart, rich people pronounce "pen pal." Dell encourages him to take the friendship to a new level, but he worries that she'll be put off by "the chair," as he calls it. 

Being a famous mega-wealthy billionaire is kind of a hard thing to hide from Google, which Dell is quick to point out.

If it's possible to really like a movie without necessarily respecting it, then "The Upside" is it. I recognize its shortcomings and lack of higher ambitions. But Cranston, Hart and Kidman are marvelous together. There's genuine chemistry and, eventually, affection between them. I think of the scene where Phillip has been persuaded to attend his own birthday party, and Dell coaxes the wallflower Yvonne to dance. 

The look on Phillip's face as she comes out of her shell is one of pure joy. Rather than lamenting his inability to join in (other than a little melodic wheeling), he's filled with happiness for her chance to express herself in a way normally denied her.

It's hard to be happy for yourself if you can't be happy for others. Even a modestly agreeable flick like "The Upside" understands this.

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