There are many downsides to The Upside, which is Hollywood’s latest attempt to transform a more sophisticated French comedy into superficial pabulum.
This remake of The Intouchables takes some crowd-pleasing source material and waters it down into a shallow redemption saga that feels more manipulative than life-affirming.
This film transports the action from Paris to New York, where Philip (Bryan Cranston) is a billionaire quadriplegic living in a high-rise penthouse, where he laments both his lack of mobility and the recent death of his wife.
Fed up with all of the overachievers being interviewed to be his caretaker, Philip instead hires Dell (Kevin Hart), a wisecracking ex-con and deadbeat dad struggling to make ends meet and to reconcile with his young son (Jahi Winston).
Their opposites-attract working relationship proves mutually beneficial. While he irritates Philip’s straitlaced personal assistant (Nicole Kidman), Dell’s freewheeling attitude brighten his employer’s despondence. And the paycheck gets Dell back on track. They even develop an affinity for one another’s musical tastes.
Alas, problems arise as Philip’s mental and physical wellness fluctuate, and Dell’s past continues to haunt him in ways that test their friendship.
Cranston, restricted to facial expressions and voice inflections, and Hart, in a welcome change-of-page role, achieve an appealing odd-couple chemistry that provides some scattered big laughs and generally rises above the mediocre material.
However, rookie screenwriter Jon Hartmere indulges in sentimentality and too often settles for crass or cheap gags — a labored and casually homophobic sequence involving a catheter change, for example — that make moviegoers feeling as though their laughing at the protagonists rather than with them.
Its charming predecessor managed to sidestep clichés about race and disability with characters and jokes that evolved realistically, helping to overcome the sitcom tendencies and mainstream contrivances in the script. By comparison, this effort — which was made two years ago and plagued by subsequent release delays — plays it safe and predictable.
The first film was based on a true story, yet this version directed by Neil Burger (Divergent) feels too detached from reality to have the desired emotional impact. By its nature, the subject matter deserves a more subtle treatment. Instead, The Upside fails to earn either its laughs or its tears.