FILM REVIEW – THE UPSIDE. With Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Tate Donovan. Written by Jon Hartmere. Directed by Neil Burger. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use. 125 minutes.
The good news about THE UPSIDE is that it isn’t as bad as expected. Why should there be low expectations? It’s a January release that’s been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. What’s changed is that the three leads are hot right now. Bryan Cranston is in the hit Broadway adaptation of “Network,” Nicole Kidman has a run of good roles including the blockbuster hit “Aquaman” and the Oscar contender “Destroyer,” and Kevin Hart is the once and possibly future Oscar host. The proverbial iron is hot, and fledgling distributor STX is striking it.
Based on a hit French film (“Les Intouchables”) – apparently inspired by a true story – it’s another odd couple story, like the recent “Green Book.” Phillip (Cranston) is a billionaire and best-selling author of business books who was rendered a quadriplegic after a skydiving accident that took the life of his wife. He has a decidedly quirky sense of humor and when his business assistant Yvonne (Kidman) is interviewing someone to be a personal aide, he impulsively hires Dell (Hart), a parolee trying to put his life back together.
The film is predictable in too many ways, but when it works it’s because of the rapport that develops between Phillip and Dell, which is to say Cranston and Hart. They truly are an odd couple, and yet they play off of each other in ways that are frequently comic and/or emotionally satisfying. As in the best romantic comedies – including a bromance like this – the two partners each have something to learn from the other. Phillip has become fatalistic and isn’t sure he wants to go on living. A pen pal relationship with a woman (Julianna Margulies) suggests possibilities, and it is Dell who urges them to meet. Dell, estranged from his wife and teenage son, has the opportunity to make amends thanks to his new job, something that Phillip encourages.
The person who is a third wheel here is Kidman. It’s not a problem with the performance. It’s that it’s a nothing role. As first we think that the tension between Dell and Yvonne is going to be a major plot point, but it quickly falls by the wayside. The relationship with her and Phillip is strictly businesslike, and in spite of hastily filling in her backstory, the payoff feels contrived.
After “Breaking Bad,” it’s clear that Cranston has a range that directors (in TV, movies, and theater) will enjoy plumbing for years. The person who has to be happiest about the film finally being released is Hart, who has his comic moments but also gets to turn in a more serious performance than his previous films have allowed. He will undoubtedly be looking for other such opportunities in the future.
So the upside about “The Upside” is that – surprisingly – there is an upside.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.