It is not a good time to be Kevin Hart right now. Sure he’s one of the most successful comedians in the world today who can put people into arenas for his stand-up act and in movie theater seats for his latest mainstream comedy, not to mention appeal to adults and families. His work rate and mass appeal was about to pay off in a big way when he was announced as the host of the 91st Academy Awards in December, but that blasted Twitter came around with receipts. Specifically, a series of homophobic tweets and old jokes came to light that led to backlash about him being the host of the Oscars. After refusing to apologize on Instagram, further angering the public, Hart stepped down from the hosting gig. While he’d probably like to take time off to reflect on his past beliefs and reevaluate how he handles himself in public he was instead thrust back into the spotlight for the promotional tour of The Upside.
The Upside is based on the 2011 French hit The Intouchables and if it weren’t for Hart’s controversy, he might’ve had a similar feel-good hit on his hands. Like the original, The Upside follows quadriplegic rich man Phil (Bryan Cranston) who needs a life auxiliary to help care for him. Under the supervision of his stuffy executive Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), Phil finds a liking to struggling ex-con Dell (Hart) and his sarcastic attitude. As Phil debates what the point is in even living, Dell tries to establish himself as a reliable supporter to his ex (Aja Naomi King) and his young son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Both men find a common bond at the lowest points in their lives and try to elevate each other.
There’s nothing technically remarkable about The Upside which is disappointing considering director Neil Burger’s (Divergent, Limitless, The Illusionist) varied filmography. Not that Burger is a bad director by any means and the story doesn’t require any flashy filmmaking, but the highest compliment that can be paid to the composition of The Upside is its competence. Though given Burger’s last major movie project was the $85 million franchise starter Divergent, it’s nice to know he can still make something stripped-down and grounded. The script by Jon Hartmere is about as basic and skin deep as it should from a guy who helped write episodes of The Electric Company reboot. A story like The Upside has been told before (think Scent of a Woman meets Driving Miss Daisy) and the script keeps things very safe. Even with a lowbrow comedic scene where Dell changes Phil’s catheter, the movie doesn’t get too mushy or overly sentimental despite hitting similar plot beats.
Whatever impression The Upside leaves is entirely up to the performers and they all do their parts well, Hart in particular. A man usually known for screaming and spitting out lightning quick cheap jokes, it’s refreshing to see him take on a more grounded character, demonstrating rarely seen restraint. While he throws out the occasionally corny joke, he doesn’t overdo the struggle his character faces or lay on sappiness too thick. He knows exactly what Dell needs to be for Phil: someone to kick him back into loving life. Hart has a dynamite scene partner in Cranston giving one of the best performances of his film career. Even when he’s confined to a wheelchair and can’t move, Cranston never loses his gift for levity or gripping emotional pain. He has a perplexing combination of refined composure and total ease with his performance that never feels phony. Same goes for Kidman as the stiff supervisor to Phil and Dell’s journey. There’s the sense that everyone in The Upside legitimately enjoyed each other’s company which emulates from the screen.
Despite the controversy surrounding one of its lead actors, The Upside manages to be a cozy and comforting way to start 2019 at the cinema. It might be better fit for a TV movie of the week than something widely theatrical but there’s still something satisfying in seeing it. Sentiment in movies all depends on how much would be too much and The Upside has a fair amount to make it go down smooth. If Hart manages to pick his career back up from PR hell, he might have a decent chance as a dramatic actor.