‘The Upside’ puts up pointless obstacles on two men’s path to betterment

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A man on parole (Kevin Hart, left) is hired to assist a billionaire who is partially paralyzed (Bryan Cranston) in “The Upside.” | STXfilms

So here’s an early contender for weirdest mashup of the year.

“The Upside” is “Pretty Woman” meets “The Green Book” meets “Me Before You,” and you probably don’t remember “Me Before You,” but it was the story of an unsophisticated regular gal who gets a job as caretaker for a wealthy, paralyzed man — and oh, the things they learn from one another.

Same deal here.

In “The Upside,” which is based on the 2011 French hit “The Intouchables,” which was inspired by a true story, Bryan Cranston’s Phillip is a billionaire business genius who was paralyzed from the neck down after a reckless paragliding adventure.

As if that isn’t tragedy enough, Phillip’s wife has succumbed to cancer, so when Phillip drifts off to sleep at night, his dreams are haunted by replays of the paragliding disaster AND visions of his dead wife. No wonder he’s in a generally grumpy mood most mornings, despite living in what is surely one of the most expensive penthouse apartments in all of New York City, and having his every need taken care of by his staff, including his fiercely loyal business manager Yvonne (Nicole Kidman).

When there’s an opening for a live-in caretaker, dozens of supremely well-qualified candidates line up for interviews, but much to Yvonne’s chagrin, Phillip hires the one guy who has no business even being in the room: Kevin Hart’s Dell, a convict who applied for the job only to get a signature proving to his parole officer he’s trying to find gainful employment.

Hart delivers a sincere and relatively low-key performance as Dell, but he’s playing an all-too-familiar movie stereotype: the multiple felon who has never been there for his adolescent son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) or his mother (Aja Naomi King).

But just when Dell’s family has given up on him and he’s on the streets with nowhere to go, presto! He gets this magical job offer from Phillip, which will pay him thousands of dollars a week AND includes posh on-site living quarters. (Dell’s apartment within the apartment alone would go for a million bucks in Manhattan.)

Dell’s duties will include everything from driving Phillip to feeding Phillip to, yes, changing Phillip’s catheter. (Like many a scene in “The Upside,” we can see the cringe-inducing catheter-changing bit coming down Fifth Avenue.)


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So why would Phillip hire someone like Dell, who has never cared for anyone but himself in his life, let alone a quadriplegic?

Because we need a movie, people! A movie filled with scenes in which the street-smart, fast-talking, me-first Dell introduces Phillip to high-quality weed, takes Phillip on joy rides in Phillip’s Ferrari and even gets Phillip jamming to Aretha Franklin.

Thanks to Dell, Phillip is remembering what it’s like to LIVE.

Ah, but Phillip is leaving an imprint on Dell as well, even getting Dell to appreciate modern art and the opera. (Hence the “Pretty Woman” reference. There’s a scene where Phillip takes Dell to the opera, and let’s just say if you’ve seen “Pretty Woman,” you’ve seen this scene before.)

You’re smart, Phillip tells Dell. You’re intelligent.

Thanks to Phillip, Dell just might start believing in himself! And thanks to Dell, Phillip just might learn to loosen up and allow himself to laugh and love again.

The screenplay by Jon Hartmere does contain some genuinely funny set pieces and some sharp one-liners, and Hart and Cranston mesh well together, especially in the quieter moments when it’s just two men talking, getting to know one another, listening to one another.

But among other problems, the overlong story is stuffed with unnecessary and momentum-blocking detours, most notably an odd subplot about Phillip’s yearlong epistolary relationship with a mysterious woman from Buffalo named Lily (Julianna Margulies).

Philip is reluctant to meet Lily in person because he fears she doesn’t know about his condition. OK, but how did they find each other in the first place, and given Lily knows Phillip’s full name and address, how could she NOT know he’s a famous, widowed, quadriplegic, business genius and best-selling author? It’s as if we’ve been dropped into a Jane Austen knockoff of a plot about a man and a woman who fall in love via flowery correspondence without ever hearing each other’s voices or gazing upon one another.

For all of Phillip’s legendary business acumen and highbrow taste in food and music and art, I’m starting to question this guy’s judgment. First, he goes paragliding in a thunderstorm while his wife is battling terminal cancer, then he hires this insanely unqualified Dell character and essentially puts his life in Dell’s hands, and now he’s considering a romantic relationship with some woman from Buffalo who might be catfishing him?

Not to mention the mobile artwork above Phillip’s bed, which in the shadows of the unforgiving night conjures up images of … a paragliding sail!

Seeing as how Phillip’s in hiring mode, perhaps he should bring in an interior decorator to get the metaphors out of there.

‘The Upside’


STXfilms presents a film directed by Neil Burger and written by Jon Hartmere, based on the film “Intouchables” by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Rated PG-13 (for suggestive content and drug use). Running time: 118 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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