It’s pretty much axiomatic that a Hollywood remake of a European movie will be more simplistic and crass than its foreign-language counterparts. That’s the case with this redo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s surprise 2012 French hit “The Intouchables”—based on a real-life story of a rich paraplegic who wants to die and the French-Senegalese caregiver who instills the desire to live in him again—but only to some extent, because the original was just about as formulaic and sappy as “The Upside” is. The remake, which follows the French film quite slavishly, merely exacerbates the flaws a little.
In this telling, Bryan Cranston is Phillip Lacasse, a successful entrepreneur whose injury resulted from a hang-gliding accident in which, he admits, he was taking needless risks. His condition, combined with the death of his beloved wife from cancer, has made him despondent, and though his staff—most notably Yvonne (Ncole Kidman), who’s put her own career on hold to manage his affairs—try to cheer him up, he insists that the Do Not Resuscitate order he’s spelled out be followed to the letter.
That’s why, when it comes time to hire a new caregiver, Phillip settles on Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), an ex-con who’s stumbled into the interview by accident—he intended to apply (or more accurately, to get a signature on a form saying he’d applied demanded by his parole officer) for a janitorial position in the building housing Phillip’s penthouse. Dell, a guy with a chip on his shoulder who’s just been thrown out of his place and isn’t welcome at the apartment of his angry ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston)—needs money and takes the well-paying job, especially since it comes with a lavish room of his own. Yvonne, of course, is aghast at Phillip’s choice of such a completely unqualified fellow.
It takes remarkably little time for the unlikely duo to bond, despite the fact that Dell, whose past misdeeds are left conveniently vague (although there are suggestions that drug-dealing and guns were involved) has already stolen a prized first-edition book of Phillip’s to give to his son (as part of his reformation, of course, he’ll be desperate to retrieve it). To be sure, he’s initially not terribly adept at moving his employer from bed to wheelchair or feeding him; and he’s grotesquely squeamish about changing Phillip’s catheter (a sequence on this subject isn’t as awful as it might be, but it comes close). And he’s flummoxed by the modern shower attached to his bedroom suite. (Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the quick development of the bromance: after all, Cranston had to suffer through a similar slapstick duel with modernist bathroom facilities in “Why Him?”)
Phillip’s influence on this diamond-in-the-rough, however, is beneficial: after initially guffawing during a performance of Mozart’s “Zauberflöte,” for example, he is so taken by the Queen of the Night’s aria that he becomes an opera buff—at least to some extent. And he determines to follow the advice he finds in the investment books Phillip authored before his accident to find a way to get his son out of the projects and into a safe neighborhood.
But Phillip profits, too. He learns to appreciate Aretha Franklin as well as Nessun dorma, and is also introduced to luscious soft-serve ice cream, deli hot dogs and great street weed, along with the joy of driving really fast in one of his mothballed sports cars (shades of “Scent of a Woman”). In short, he realizes there are reasons to continue living, after all—including fleecing his snobbish neighbor Carter (Tate Donovan) by persuading him to buy a hideous painting of Dell’s at a ridiculously high price—which provides Dell with the resources he needs to help his family and start a business.
The relationship hits a snag, of course, when Dell goes too far—inducing Phil, as he must now be called in his new unbuttoned state, to meet with his long-time platonic pen-pal Lily (Julianna Margulies). But ultimately that extraneous sub-plot merely acts as a device for the obvious romance—between Phil and devoted Yvonne—to progress.
It also leads into the inevitable big finale, a drawn-out reconciliation that gives the buddies a chance rebuild their friendship. It provides Hart with the opportunity to deliver one of the hysterical bits he’s good at, and Cranston’s Phil the chance to bounce back from the doldrums. A shaving sequence they share is typical of the movie’s effort to combine smiles and sap.
And, in fact, the actors do share a good comic rapport. Hart might be doing what is basically his usual shtick and Dell is a thoroughly stereotypical character, but at least the result is a bit rougher-tinged this time around. Cranston, meanwhile, reconnects with the playful side most of his recent bigscreen roles (except for the dreadful “Why Him?”) have ignored—and he responds with an impressive repertoire of facial scowls, grins and eye-rolling. The rest of the cast are playing second and third fiddle for them, but Kidman does her prim, proper routine well enough. So do the technical crew: the picture looks fine, with production designer Mark Friedberg’s work on Philip’s elegant penthouse very nice and Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography doing it justice.
In the end, though, even the chemistry between Hart and Cranston can’t rescue the movie’s manipulative mixture of farce and sentiment, or justify its retrograde treatment of the “unlikely friendship” between a black man and a white one. (“Green Book” can be accused of a similarly outdated approach, but after all it’s a period piece.) At least “The Upside” doesn’t do damage to a great original; it merely replicates its failings, without the subtitles.