It is with great relief that I report on an American remake of a fine French film that doesn’t drain me of the will to live. After DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS and FATHER’S DAY, the travesties of which haunt me to this very day, Neil Burger’s THE UPSIDE captures most of the essence of what made LES INTOUCHABLES such a hit all over the world. The script skims the dangerous shoals of triteness from time to time, but the unmatchable chemistry between Bryan Cranston, as a wealthy many who has lost both wife and mobility, and Kevin Hart as the ex-con who has lost his family after letting them down one too many times, saves this film. I would even go so far as to say that they elevate it.
Based on a true story, it finds Del (Hart) and Phil (Cranston) at the lowest ebbs of their lives. Phil’s paragliding has left him a paraplegic, but it’s his wife dying of cancer that has taken the biggest toll. Del, out on parole, is trying to reclaim a part in the lives of his ex-wife ((Aja Naomi King) and adolescent son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), both of whom have been disappointed by him so many times that their anger has become a hard, cold thing that turns a deaf ear to Del’s attempts to reconnect.
Be it chance or fate, Del accidentally shows up for a job interview to be Phil’s life auxiliary, the one who bathes, dresses, feeds, and otherwise does everything for a man paralyzed from the neck down that he can’t do for himself. When Del, tired of waiting his turn and late to pick up his son, barges into an interview with another applicant conducted by Phil and Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), his brashness offends the latter, even as the refusal to stand on ceremony, or even acknowledge it, intrigues the former. Unskilled, anything but deferential, and decidedly not the standard nurturing presence the job requires, Phil insists on hiring Del, much to Yvonne’s chagrin. Is it a death wish on Phil’s part? Is it the spark of life he sees in Del that is a tonic to the sedate life turned moribund he has been living until now? Maybe a bit of both as, of course, each teaches the other about preconceived notions, rash assumptions, and the meaning of life.
It sounds too precious, but Hart’s dramatic turn here is solid, as is the hard edge of bitterness he shares with Cranston about what life has dealt them. It’s that common ground that lends credence to their bonding, even as Cranston’s cynicism channeled into a biting wit makes for a telling juxtaposition to Hart’s bemusement over his new-found surroundings in the rarefied milieu of serious money. Moments that would in a lesser effort devolved into slapstick and shtick, a computer-controlled shower speaking German while assaulting an unwary Del and the inevitable scene of Del replacing Phil’s catheter, instead have an unexpected core of authenticity amid the humor. He even sells Del falling in love with opera. As for Cranston, limited to the used of voice and face, he turns in a multi-layered, subtle performance that is easily one of the best of his career. When Phil tentatively decides to rejoin the world, and suffers a setback, it is truly heartbreaking. When he finally has the also inevitable confrontation with Del over their relative positions in life, the lack of control this wealthy and powerful man is a revelation. Kidman, as the prickly, protective, and perplexed Yvonne almost doesn’t seem think that she’s slumming in a supporting role, though there is an aloofness to her that undercuts the character.
One other thing I appreciated in THE UPSIDE is the way it deals honestly with discrimination. The invisibility of the disabled and of people of color, lumped together as beneath the notice of society. It’s straightforward, but not heavy-handed as it addresses what even the most well-meaning people are guilty of when refusing to see beyond the surface. It’s a sensitive, intelligent film about the necessity of connection, and the joy it brings when you surrender to it.