“THE UPSIDE” — 3 stars — Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Tate Donovan; PG-13 (suggestive content and drug use); in general release; running time: 125 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — “The Upside” won’t turn January into spring, but it might just be able to give your winter a blast of sunshine.
Based on a true story, Neil Burger’s “The Upside” is the American adaptation of the French film “Les Intouchables.” The story follows an unlikely friendship between an ex-con and a wealthy quadriplegic.
After a quick prologue hints at the high jinks to come, “The Upside” flashes back six months to fill in some backstory. Dell (Kevin Hart) is an ex-con in search of a job and a repaired relationship with his son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Prison hasn’t quite reformed Dell, certainly not enough for Anthony’s mother Latrice (Aja Naomi King) to trust him, and Dell’s court-mandated efforts to find employment are minimal by design.
Things change quickly when Dell shows up at a swank Manhattan penthouse by mistake, thinking he is interviewing for a janitorial job. Instead, almost through sheer accidental force of personality, Dell gets hired as the personal caretaker for a wealthy quadriplegic named Phillip (Bryan Cranston).
Phillip’s problems go deeper than his disability, which was the result of a parasailing accident. Phillip is still mourning the loss of his wife Jenny (Genevieve Angelson), who died of cancer, and nothing — not his fabulous wealth or his doting business manager Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) — can get through to him.
Phillip senses a kinship with Dell, however, and soon “The Upside” is off on an enjoyable, if mostly predictable, ride as the two slowly help each other with their demons. At first, Dell plays the fish out of water, stunned by his generous newfound salary but horrified to discover the kind of intimate services — i.e., replacing catheters — that will earn said salary.
Eventually though, Dell and Phillip’s friendship penetrates deeper levels as Phillip encourages his rookie caretaker to realize his potential (which leads to a hilarious transaction with a snooty neighbor played by Tate Donovan), and Dell pushes his client to get back on the dating wagon with a pen pal named Lily (Julianna Margulies).
Not everything goes as smoothly as hoped, and “The Upside” follows Phillip and Dell through some modest twists and turns as the reality of Phillip’s condition periodically comes storming to the surface. But what Burger’s film lacks in plot, it makes up for in charm.
Hart and Cranston are perfectly matched to their roles. Not so much because either is breaking new ground in terms of performing — though Cranston is limited to acting from the neck up throughout the film — but more because each actor’s strengths enhance the character’s needs.Comment on this story
“The Upside” isn’t exactly a comedy, but it is often genuinely funny — thanks mostly, as you might expect, to Hart, who manages to riff constantly on his surroundings without ever distracting too much from the story. Without having seen “Les Intouchables,” it’s difficult to fully contextualize Burger’s effort, but it is worth noting that “The Upside” manages to be discreet during scenes that might have been played up for their vulgarity in other films.
Burger’s final product is still in PG-13 territory — and it does play some scenes of illegal drug use for laughs — but it also understands the value of subtlety, and though the pieces don’t always connect, the chemistry between Hart and Cranston will cover a multitude of sins. “The Upside” will make you smile.
Rating explained: “The Upside” is rated PG-13 for the aforementioned drug use, some scattered profanity, adult dialogue and some suggestive content.