This remake of the 2011 French box office hit The Intouchables has its share of toe-curling “what on earth were they thinking” moments. The filmmakers’ treatment of race, disability and class is superficial in the extreme. They continually risk patronising and stereotyping their main protagonists, the black street hustler Dell (Kevin Hart) and the white quadriplegic New York billionaire, Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), who hires him as a “life auxiliary”.
On the upside – if you will – Hart and Cranston do make a likeable odd couple, both ready to show their characters’ vulnerable sides and idiosyncrasies. Hart, in particular, displays a sensitivity not always found in his broader comic vehicles. Thanks to their performances, The Upside has a few moments which are affecting and delicately observed.
As the friendship between the men deepens, their worlds rub off on one another. Dell falls in love with opera and abstract expressionism while Phillip discovers dope, hot dogs and the joy of prostitutes. Many of the jokes and puns, though, fall flat. There is only limited amusement to be had from Dell’s inability to distinguish between “Rigoletto” and “rigor mortis” or from his squeamishness about changing his boss’s catheter.
Visually, the film is richer than might have been expected. Its cinematographer is Stuart Dryburgh, who at the start of this career shot The Piano for Jane Campion. Whether it’s the sweeping shots of Manhattan skyscrapers and streets by night or of the interiors of Phillip’s opulent apartment or the paragliding scenes, the film has a glossiness which adds to its fairytale feel. Director Neil Burger fills the film with rousing opera arias, among them “Nessun Dorma” and “Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, as well as with anthems from Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.
Dell, just out of prison, is desperate to keep his parole officer happy, which is why he goes through the motions of applying for jobs in fast food outlets and in offices. When he turns up at Phillip’s apartment, he thinks the vacancy is for a janitor.
Phillip has a very frosty faced business manager (Nicole Kidman), who runs his affairs. She takes an instant dislike to Dell. This endears him all the more to Phillip. While his other wouldbe caretakers are relentlessly patronising or speak in healthcare cliches, Dell is irreverent. “You can move your mouth,” he tells his wheelchair-bound prospective boss, suggesting that is far more important than the use of his limbs.
The ex-felon seems tiny next to Kidman’s character, Yvonne. She gives him “three strikes”, warning him that the third time he messes up he will be fired. Phillip, though, sees the potential in his new employee. He made his fortune by writing books about lateral thinking and by turning around failing companies. Dell, he believes, has untapped abilities.
The two men mirror one another: Dell has an estranged wife and a teenage son he rarely sees; Philip is still grief stricken over the death of his partner and can’t bring himself to take off his wedding ring. After some crude slapstick involving Dell’s inability to strap Phillip into his wheelchair or to feed him, they begin to have a riotous time together. They drive around town in Phillip’s sports cars, get high and go to the opera.
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The film is set in the present day and yet feels strangely old fashioned, like one of those Brewster’s Millions-style comedies made in Hollywood during the 1980s. Dell has been living hand to mouth for years but suddenly has money in his pocket and a chance to mend relations with his family. Working for Phillip gives him a sense of responsibility and self-respect. It’s the first time he has ever actually cared for anybody other than himself.
Elements of the original French film don’t transfer at all smoothly to a Hollywood remake, however. For example, the idea that Phillip would have an epistolary relationship with a woman he has never met seems odd. In an age of email, smartphones and social media, you can’t believe that Phillip would spend so much time writing such drippy letters to a stranger.
The film’s attitude towards high culture is also strangely ambivalent. On the one hand, the art lovers in Phillip’s circle are inveterate snobs, although they can barely tell the difference between a Cy Twombly painting and a crude picture of a dog that Dell has knocked up in his spare time. On the other hand, Phillip’s passion for Twombly, Ed Ruscha and for opera is heartfelt. Dell mocks it at first but soon begins to share it.
The filmmakers continually shy away from the reality of Phillip’s condition and from the pain and humiliation he feels. They also sidestep any meaningful analysis of racism and social inequality. This insistence on always looking on the bright side makes for cheery but ultimately very glib storytelling.
‘The Upside’ is released 11 January
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