Movies

For all its racially charged setup, The Upside doesn’t completely crash and burn

Back in 2011, France released The Intouchables, a buddy comedy in which a rich white quadriplegic hires an unqualified black ex-con as a live-in caregiver, and subsequently learns to loosen up, smoke weed and live a little. It was adored by audiences and fretted over by critics; sample think-piece headline: “The Intouchables – Racist Or Cheesy?”

So why not have The Weinstein Company remake it in English, set it in racially charged present-day America and release it in 2019? This just after the Golden Globe went to the “is-it-racist?” Green Book, while Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman came home empty-handed, and If Beale Street Could Talk was beat out by Bohemian Rhapsody? I mean, what could go wrong?

Turns out quite a bit in director Neil Burger’s adaptation, which closely follows the beats of the original; the biggest addition, aside from a bloated, two-hours-plus running time, is the addition of an ex-wife and son for the character of Dell, played with relative restraint by Kevin Hart. Oh, and Dell steals a book and spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out how to give it back. For this they needed a new screenwriter?

Bryan Cranston takes up the role of Phillip, who was paralyzed in a paragliding accident and subsequently lost his wife to cancer. It is suggested, with far less subtlety than in the original, that he hires Dell because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies; an early scene has him explaining his do-not-resuscitate order to his new caregiver.

A similar obviousness goes into crafting the characters of Dell and Phillip. One likes opera; the other Aretha. One can quote Yeats; the other falsely claims to know who that is. One considers himself a ladies’ man, in the #PreToo sense of the word; the other fears intimacy. No points for guessing who’s who here.

For all its racially charged setup, The Upside doesn’t completely crash and burn, mostly thanks to Cranston’s and Hart’s efforts to dance around the worst of their characters’ clichés. Phillip’s world includes thinly sketched employees played by Nicole Kidman (as his executive assistant), Suzanne Savoy (the cook) and Julianna Margulies (physical therapist), while Dell spars with ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King). There’s also Tate Donovan, wasted in the role of Phillip’s grumpy downstairs neighbour.

There’s a real Phillip, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, the son of a French Duke who hired Algerian ex-con Abdel Sellou back in the ’90s; the two remain friends to this day. So The Upside is based on a true story but also based on a previous movie, which involves quite a drift from the original truth. A 2003 hour-long doc, À la vie, à la mort, tells their tale, but I’d recommend The Intouchables. Sure, you’ve got to track it down and it’s got subtitles, but that’s just the kind of message The Upside is clumsily peddling: Vive la différence!

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