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REVIEW – “The Upside” Falls Short of Staying Down, Hart and Cranston Showing Great Chemistry in Flat Dramedy

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2019’s earliest wide release prospects are failing a bit too easily to carry over the strong momentum of a year-end hailstorm of lasting favorites. It may not help how far behind I’ve been as of late, only made worse by starting a brand-new professional job, so I couldn’t quite vouch for most of those late Xmas features that may distract some moviegoers this weekend from a new entry riddled in bad timing, and loose plot fundamentals. The Upside, the less-than-lucky sixth film from director Neil Burger, doesn’t try all that much to justify its existence, when its original inspiration, the French buddy comedy The Intouchables remains an assumedly superior variant on what is, to my surprise, a true story. There was not enough of a chance for homework viewing ahead of time, so I’m left to only hope the original can wash away what Burger and his mismatched leads, the stalwartly dramatic Bryan Cranston and the comedically energetic Kevin Hart, could leave behind on the tongue.

Burger and scriptwriter Jon Hartmere (his film debut) establishes what plays out as a mild cross between The Odd Couple and one loose strain from The Bucket List right away, the chemistry between the two leads inimitable. Cranston portrays Philip LaCasse, a noted author and business strategist with a large wealth cap. His life is altered dramatically after a paragliding accident leaves him paralyzed from the neck down, withdrawn and haunted by the memories of his late wife, a recent cancer victim. Aided by close friend Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), they proceed with auditions for a new “life auxiliary”, a live-in assistant for his everyday transport and then some. Enter Dell Scott (Hart), an unemployed parolee struggling to make ends meet and pay off a backlog of child support for ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and their straight-A son Anthony (Jadi Di’Allo Winston). At first, Dell’s just looking for signatures to buy him some time and avoid being sent back to jail, admitting openly he was never cut out for the iron bars after a series of petty crimes in the past. Philip sees potential in the plucky prospect, and above else, a second chance.

Their friendship blossoms immediately after, between points where they make each other laugh (medicinal marijuana jokes are used… extensively), nearly kill each other, and attempt to rekindle lost bonds. At squared center is Hart and Cranston’s raw nerve bleeding over to something purely genuine. The later the film runs, the closer of a bond they build, but also the heavier Burger is inclined to dish out worn-out clichés that only emphasize how inconsistent its genre strengths lie. All throughout I was struggling to make up my mind over whether I was seeing a drama or a comedy. A high-octane prologue setting up the relationship between Phillip and Dell really had me thinking there’d be far, far more dialogue-driven humor (not so much physical or scenario-based) off the bat.

The fun Kevin Hart I have grown accustomed to, Jumanji Kevin Hart, he’s not around. This really is his first attempt at an entirely serious role, and while he looked very comfortable when the moment called for poignant prose posing on camera, he can’t play a fair medium between comedic and dramatic. The latter still does not suit him, and even with Cranston to play ballast, he can’t rise above the ground to create what should be a game-changing role. Given his show of bad luck these last few weeks, it may be better this film be forgotten after a while save for the closest of Hart fans who will easily find him as charming as ever. I may not be entirely a fan, and I still believe he could never carry a film on his own. He will always need a top-shelf companion to keep him in line.

The film itself likely deserves to leave a lack of memory once it disappears from theaters. Regrettably, it was a victim of the Weinsteins’ downfall, its successor company picking up the slack ten months after its original release date. And much like Hart, whom the plot’s focus may’ve skewed too much on, it simply can’t decide what kind of film it wants to be, so it settles for fake charm and rehashed laurels. When I had to narrow it down, it felt more like an urban drama than a middle-of-the-road buddy comedy. It’s too heavy-handed much of the time, serious when it knows it can be, funny when it’s forced to dole out a few weak gags.

When it does manage to get its act together, pulling all the puzzle pieces tightly enough to maintain cohesiveness, it’s just too late to make the difference, leaving a mere hollowness of what could’ve been, had there been far less emotional setup. There were a couple of scenes that managed to break down my wall, get me chuckling mostly on its almost crass absurdity. And the film’s inadvertent musical motifs, a back and forth between Rob Simonson’s delicately touching score, Philip’s obsessive love of drama, and Dell’s pure love for the late Aretha Franklin in an accidental tribute, were nice touches. How it culminates, in the end, did put a smile on my face, despite the rocky road taken.

It is not like I didn’t enjoy The Upside, it was easily one of those films that I could watch once and be satisfied with it. It will not be a classic that stands the test of time, both Hart and Cranston have accomplished creating characters already that can exist in a person’s memory long after I have left this earth. By the emotional finale that did get my screening audience cheering somehow, it all does fit correctly. Yet for a film that promises what it couldn’t entirely warrant and would’ve easily been a better match to the average moviegoer 15 years ago if not longer, I’d have hoped for a bit more urgency, energy, and certainly a better balance of reasons to laugh along. It didn’t completely connect with me for those reasons, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t. It’s a manageable spot of cinematic comfort food, and nothing more, but certainly worth seeing with the right people. Take my advice and make time for the original French film first; don’t make the same mistake I made by skipping it. (C-)

The Upside opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use; 125 minutes.