If you’re in the mood for an upbeat comedy about an interracial friendship, a bit of reassurance that a white man and a black man can find common ground, you are fortunate — if that’s the word — to have at least two options available to you. Golden Globe wins and a string of escalating controversies have put quite the spotlight on “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s ingratiating, Oscar-contending two-hander about the friendship that develops between a bigoted white man and his wary black employer as they navigate the heavily segregated Deep South.
Being ejected into theaters this week with far less fanfare, and with a few unflattering headlines of its own, is “The Upside,” a contemporary New York comedy starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. The movie, while not likely to be in the running for Oscars this year or any year, has a curious connection to them. Its release coincides with what are hopefully the final days of an ugly, tiresome scandal, in which Hart was selected to host the Academy Awards but then quickly stepped down after old homophobic tweets were brought to light.
“The Upside,” which first screened at film festivals in 2017, might well have avoided this awkwardness had it been released in a timely fashion. Instead, it was one of several movies temporarily shelved amid the legal and financial troubles that engulfed its former distributor, the Weinstein Co. (It’s now being released, more than a year later, by STX Entertainment.)
All this off-screen drama may be incidental to the picture itself, but I mention it because it is also a whole lot more interesting; indeed, it threatens to make “The Upside” more interesting than it has any right to be. (Maybe that’s the upside.) All the pitfalls you might have expected to find in this movie — a weakness for sentimentality, a reliance on clichés and caricatures — are present and accounted for, but they are also suddenly the least of its problems.
Directed by Neil Burger from a script by Jon Hartmere, “The Upside” is a stale, flat-footed American update of a smash-hit 2012 French comedy called “The Intouchables,” whose story — about a moody ex-con (Omar Sy) who gets a job taking care of a physically disabled writer (François Cluzet) — became its own magnet for controversy. The writer was white, the caretaker was black and the racial politics were mired firmly in an earlier century, and no less dubious for being wrapped in a crowd-pleasing, heartwarming blanket.
In real life, it’s worth noting, the caretaker wasn’t black; he was an Algerian immigrant named Abdel Sellou (whose memoir inspired “The Intouchables”). The filmmakers’ decision to recast his story in ostensibly more accessible black-and-white terms couldn’t help but expose both the cultural nearsightedness and the commercial calculation of their project.
“The Upside,” for its part, takes that calculation to its logical next step. Its decision to Americanize a hugely lucrative property, with the lead roles now filled by a popular black comedian and the guy who played Walter White, probably once looked like a sound idea on paper.
Hart plays Dell, a surly, scruffy underachiever who owes a lot of child support to his exasperated ex (Aja Naomi King) and their sensitive adolescent son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Dell spends most of his time meeting with his parole officer and shuffling through interviews for jobs he doesn’t want — until one day he is bewilderingly taken on as a live-in aide, or “life auxiliary,” for Phillip (Cranston), a wealthy widowed author who has been paralyzed from the neck down since a hang-gliding accident.
Phillip’s hiring decision startles everyone, including his hard-working, long-suffering assistant, Yvonne (a lovely Nicole Kidman), and we’re meant to see it as an act of rebellion by a man so tired of living that he’s ready to trust the person seemingly least qualified to keep him alive. The real reason, of course, is so the movie can deliver the most improbable, incongruous buddy-comedy pairing imaginable, the better for the audience to laugh, cry and marvel at the breadth and depth of our shared humanity.
Or, to put it another way: What could be more beautiful than a rich, cultured, immobilized white man bonding with a poor, under-educated, able-bodied black one? “The Upside,” like “The Intouchables” before it, labors mightily to sell this dubious intersectional nightmare of a premise in as charming and grounded a manner as possible. After some early tetchiness and a few physical pratfalls, the two men gradually begin to thaw, bonding in ways that may elicit both an “aww” and a raised eyebrow.
Phillip introduces Dell to the rarefied delights of kumquats and classical opera; Dell turns Phillip on to the more popular pleasures of ice cream and Aretha Franklin. Dell, being a forward, uninhibited type, encourages Phillip to emerge from his shell and put himself back on the dating market. Meanwhile, Phillip not only pays Dell generously but also encourages him to think seriously about his vocation.
Whatever baggage they bring with them (more on that shortly), the actors do what they can to liberate their characters from the trappings of formula and stereotype. Hart, known for his singular brand of motormouthed comic belligerence, wisely does not try to mimic Sy’s larger-than-life ebullience. He exercises the lower register of his voice and shuffles through the early scenes in a sour mood — one that is matched by the brooding storm clouds that seem to hover over Cranston’s sandpaper-dry performance. These are two men who, for very different reasons, need to be reminded that life is worth living, and also that privilege comes in many forms.
There are worse lessons for a movie to try to impart. But all the good intentions in the world cannot rescue “The Upside” from either its terminal blandness or its clumsy timing. This is hardly the first picture to draw criticism for casting an able-bodied actor as a disabled character, but it might be the one most susceptible to that charge, given its glossy, breezily superficial examination of what it’s like to live with quadriplegia. You are invited to delight in the sight of Dell hitching a ride on the back of Phillip’s souped-up wheelchair, to cry at a scene in which Dell goes on his first date in years. You are also expected to laugh and cringe at a scene in which Dell has to change his employer’s catheter.
Maybe cringe is an understatement, given the sight and sound of Hart displaying aggressive disgust at having to handle another man’s genitalia. Gay panic, it should be noted, is rarely funny, but it is also rarely this wince-worthy. “The Upside” was probably never going to be a good movie, but it needn’t have been such an unfortunate, spectacularly ill-timed one, the victim of circumstances it ultimately has neither the wit nor the imagination to transcend.
Rating: PG-13, for suggestive content and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In general release