Twenty years ago, if you’d gone to the set of Eyes Wide Shut and told Nicole Kidman that her career would take her from working with Stanley Kubrick to a third-billed supporting gig in a Kevin Hart movie, she probably would’ve asked who the hell Kevin Hart was if she could stop laughing long enough to get the words out. But this is 2019, so here we are.
The Upside is exactly the kind of pandering, post-holiday pabulum that typically graces mid-January slots in the calendar, with the sole distinction of being a remake of a pretty decent French film. The fact that The Intouchables (2011) was the highest grossing domestic release in the history of French cinema likely speaks to the box office success of The Upside, despite the fact that it’s a film riddled with problematic cliches that never makes much of a point beyond the obvious.
And that obvious point is painfully belabored over the course of two insouciant hours of ham-fisted saccharinity, as Kevin Hart plays what Spike Lee referred to as the “Magical Negro” trope to Bryan Cranston’s quadriplegic straight-man, imparting a newfound love of life to at the wheelchair-bound billionaire. It’s a setup we’ve seen dozens of time over decades of cinema history, and this example is no better than any other. If you can overlook the racist stereotypes and rampant white privilege on display here, the duo do have an affable chemistry that proves watchable, if only because Kevin Hart seems to be at his lowest setting and Bryan Cranston is routinely likable even in some of his worst roles.
Outside of its predictable premise and egregious running time, The Upside is also hamstrung by distinctly uninspired direction on the part of Neil Burger, whose lackluster track record speaks for itself. His work on the abortive YA franchise films Divergent and Insurgent would suggest that he was ill-equipped to tackle a drama of a more mundane scale, and that awkward fit is evident in the end result. Berger approaches the film as though he constantly wants the film to be something other than what it is, inserting an unduly aggressive visual style — and an unnecessary car chase to boot.
Is The Upside bad? Not for what it is, I suppose. But what it is casuists of little more than a pale simulacrum of a superior film with recognizable American actors replacing their French counterparts. Does that justify seeing the film? I would argue in the negative, unless you find yourself in dire need of some empty-headed tripe to pass a cold winter night. But as far as a general audience, The Upside is nearly all downside.