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Non-Review Review: The Upside

The Upside doesn’t work.

From the outset, it is very clear what The Upside wants to be. This a movie that aspires towards a broad feel-good mood. Perhaps its closest companion in this particular awards cycle is Green Book. It is easy to be cynical about such films, and it is particularly easy to be cynical about The Upside. The film’s delayed release is not the result of a studio desperately holding a hidden gem until late in awards season, this is a would-be crowd pleaser pried from the cold dead hands of the Weinstein Company.

Hart to heart.

Everything in The Upside seems designed to guide an audience on an emotionally uplifting journey, a story of two characters from very different circumstances brought together so that each might elevate the other. All of the big moments in The Upside are no so much telegraphed as broadcast, the volume turned up to eleven. Characters scream and shout, at both each other and the world around them. Catharsis isn’t just sought, it is amplified. There is no moment at which The Upside leaves the audience in any doubt about what they should feel.

The result is a clumsy and awkward piece of cinema that constantly trips over itself, repeatedly undermining anything meaningful or significant that it might have to say about either of its two central characters.

“So, what is The Upside here?”

The Upside is based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, filtered through the lens of the French smash hit Intouchables. Indeed, Intouchables was something of an international sensation itself, distributed by the Weinstein Company at the height of their power and making an impact as part of a broader wave of films exploring the issue of physical disability; other films released in and around Intouchables were Rust and Bone and The Sessions, while Amour dealt with a different sort of condition.

Intouchables was by far the broadest of these films, and perhaps the most poppy. It was light on its feet. It generated its fair share of controversy. Part of that focused on the film’s treatment of race. Part of that dealt on the film’s upbeat portrayal of extreme physical disability, largely eschewing the sort of pathos and tragedy associated with more earnest narratives tackling the subject. Intouchables was loud, it was brash, it was confident. It was never a subtle film, always conscious of what the audience was supposed to feel in response to a particular idea or image.

Before they could film this, I believe the actors had to sign a rider.

This is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Most obviously, The Upside makes Intouchables appear like an especially nuanced and complex exploration of the topics at hand. Intouchables was a movie that already had the dial turned to maximum, populated by the familiar markers of these sorts of feel-good films, and succeeding in large part based on its charm and energy. The Upside somehow finds some give in that particular knob, and turns the volume up further. What little subtlety existed in Intouchables is erased thoroughly in The Upside.

This is most obvious in the way that the film approaches the character of Phillip Lacasse, a wealthy New Yorker who is quadriplegic. The other film lead, a cunning young man named Dell who finds himself hired as Phillip’s assistant, repeatedly insists that characters acknowledge Phillip and treat him as a person. When a hot dog salesman asks what Dell’s “friend” wants, Dell warns him, “Don’t do that. Ask him.” When Dell’s son gets to ride in Phillip’s car, Dell tells the young man to thank his benefactor. “Look him in the eye,” he instructs.

Chewing it over.

This is good advice, but it often feels like The Upside might have done well to listen to it. The Upside returns time and again to the tropes of narratives about disabled people, even those few elements that Intouchables had pointedly and consciously avoided. Most obviously, The Upside reduces Phillip to the circumstances of his accident quite quickly. Intouchables makes a point to avoid explaining how Phillip ended up in the chair until an hour into the film. The Upside does not trust its audience to have that patience, and so has Phillipe experience flashbacks to his trauma.

More than that, The Upside indulges in the lazy clichés of stories about people with such disabilities. The real-life Philippe Pozzo di Borgo is a strong advocate for life after disability, and a strong opponent of euthanasia. However one might feel about that issue, it seems in very poor taste to paint his cinematic counterpart as suicidal. When confronted about his decision to hire an unqualified personal assistant, Phillip Lacasse heavily implies that he is suicidal and that hiring Dell is just one step on an elaborate suicidal plot.

High society.

This sort of plot beats is very much standard in stories about people who live with these sorts of profound life-altering disabilities. It was a central plot point in Me Before You. There is undoubtedly a valid debate to be had about an individual’s right to define the terms of their own passing, and to make their own choices about their standards of living, but The Upside is not especially interested in developing Phillip’s implied suicidal ideation beyond a cheap dramatic hook. It serves as emotional leverage on the audience rather than anything substantive.

These issues with the portrayal of Phillip are indicative of large issues with film. The Upside never avoids a cliché and never chooses to underplay an emotional moment. The characters in The Upside constantly seem on the verge of a neurotic breakdown. There is an extended sequence in the middle of the film that seems to exist so it can be cut into the film’s trailers, in which Phillip vicariously tears apart his lavish and luxurious studio using Dell as his hands. It is a moment that exists as an emotional catharsis, but which never feels earned or organic.

Dial it back, there.

The Upside is formulaic to a fault. Although not a romantic comedy, it preserves the sort of heightened third-act separation-and-return arc associated with such film. Phillip and Dell need to be separated so that they might come back together. Intouchables played this separation as a moment of sobering maturity for both characters, in recognition of the work each had done for the other. The Upside plays it as an excuse for a blow-out argument driven by misdirected rage so that two actors can shout angry at one another using reductive character descriptions.

None of this is especially interesting. None of this is especially insightful. More damning, none of this is especially good. It is possible to execute a narrative template like this in a way that is satisfying and engaging, but The Upside simply doesn’t feel up to it. This may be an issue with the production. There’s never a sense that anybody working on the project is capable of elevating it. Rob Simonsen’s score is hokey and clumsy, occasionally evoking the graceful piano of Ludovico Einaudi. However, the comparison is not flattering.

Malcolm in the Middlebrow.

Cranston is solid as a leading man,  but still trying to delicately navigate the boundaries between comedy and drama. Cranston can play both very well, and it’s revealing the film comes closest to working when it trusts his instincts, which in terms of comedy or drama. Kevin Hart fares less well as co-lead. Hart is clearly trying to make that transition from comedy towards respected actor, like Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell or Steve Carrell before him. However, The Upside keeps pushing Hart more and more towards caricature, without giving him space to show humanity and warmth.

To be fair, at least part of this is on director Neil Berger. Berger struggles with tone. This is a problem inherited from Jon Hartmere’s script, which takes itself more self-seriously than the French film that inspired it while trying to retain the levity. Hartmere tries to break the audience’s heart while also making poop jokes, and the script just isn’t strong enough to do that. The result is a film that aims for two extremes and instead simply falls down between them.

One In-Dell-able Moment.

Burger compounds the issue by over-extending several beats; there’s a prolonged gag involving Dell in a shower that feels tonally off, while far too long is spent on Dell’s discomfort with the word (and concept of a) “penis.” Again, to be fair to The Upside, the joke is clearly structured to be on Dell’s homophobia. The audience is clearly meant to side with Phillip, who repeatedly and openly mocks Dell’s insecurities. At the same time, it seems like a very poor scene in which to anchor a Kevin Hart comedy, given recent controversies. (It could easily have been cut, late in the game.)

The Upside feels like something of a misnomer. The best thing about the film is that it’s rarely as actively or offensively bad as it might have been, instead feeling trite and clichéd.

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