As a young dweeb, I found great joy in flipping to the “How to Increase Your Word Power” Section of a Reader’s Digest. It’s truly an invaluable tool for infusing your vernacular with big, flowery words that make people roll their eyes and walk away from you at parties. I remember being struck by how many $50 ways you can describe something as cornball: Treacly. Mawkish. Maudlin. Hey–wait, don’t roll your eyes! Come back here! The Upside caused those highfalutin words to scroll through my head in quick succession. While it’s well-intentioned and very well-acted, this movie is also too long, too broad, and ultimately too saccharine for its own good.
Based on the superior French film, The Intouchables, Dell (Kevin Hart) is an aimless miscreant who may’ve paid his debt to society, but still owes a good deal to his distant young son. Fortune smiles when Dell stumbles into an interview with Phil (Bryan Cranston), a paraplegic billionaire currently shopping for a caregiver with just the right amount of sitcom spunk. Dell conveniently fires off a few Kevin Hart riffs and puts a twinkle back in Phil’s weary eyes. Dell takes the job, much to chagrin of Phil’s flummoxed assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). The movie then travels down a well-trodden path: Phil expands Dell’s horizons with opera and fine art, while Dell pumps a little blood back into Phil’s soul. They glean a deeper respect for each other and yada, yada, yada…
While this reality-based story is every bit as formulaic as it sounds, The Upside does get a few things right: Hart shifts his schtick down into third gear, and his performance benefits greatly from it. Cranston displays the impeccable comic timing that he so often hides in plain sight. Actors often say that comedy is a harder needle to thread than drama, but Cranston once again proves he can make either look easy. Kidman elevates her underwritten role with the skilled charm of a veteran performer. The soundtrack alternates between opera and Aretha Franklin and gives the film some much-needed bounce.
At 126 minutes, The Upside takes the scenic route to get where we all know it has to go. And I mean that literally: At one point we take an excursion to the beautiful Alleghenies, and later the movie cuts to the same scene again. This story could’ve used editing that was more…*flips through Reader’s Digest*…judicious. There we go. As it is, The Upside switches back and forth between funny and frustrating, and only gets what life it has from the strong performances of the two leads.