If you’re making a movie about brotherly love, it makes sense to call your leads Phil and Dell.
Particularly if you shot most of it in Philadelphia, as was the case with The Upside, a competent, pat remake of the French hit The Intouchables — Americanized to star Bryan Cranston as a wealthy aristocrat stricken with paralysis, and Kevin Hart as a straight-from-the-projects ex-con who becomes his caretaker.
Hart is Dell, assigned by his parole officer to collect three job interview signatures to prove that he’s looking for work. He wanders into a Park Avenue building (actually a soundstage in Aston) looking for a janitorial position, and ends up in the queue for health care workers applying to be live-in caregiver for a billionaire named Phil (Cranston).
Phil doesn’t much care for any of the candidates, or even the selection process — he’s deeply depressed, a consequence of a hang-gliding accident that cost him the use of his arms and legs. So in an odd way it’s a match — a guy who doesn’t really want the job, and guy who doesn’t really want to live.
Even if you haven’t seen The Intouchables, you have a pretty good idea where the drama is headed. Still, The Upside nonetheless does an amiable job of taking you there, thanks to hard work by the two leads. There is also the novelty of seeing Hart turning in an effectively restrained performance — conjuring genuine emotion and turning the Kevin down to seven.
There are also plenty of moments that allow him to invoke his more familiar, antic persona. We watch Dell, for instance, trying to figure out the mysterious workings of a digitally activated shower — a vast, glass-walled, chrome and black tile modernist bathing cathedral that responds to vocal commands with a voice that sounds like Alexa crossed with a German Bond villain.
It gets laughs, but it is also in keeping with a serious thread in the movie, one that highlights the yawning gap in the lives of Dell and Phil — two men who are a train ride and also worlds apart. Dell is astounded to be clearing a couple grand per week, and though it’s peanuts for Phil, it’s life-altering money for Dell, an in-arrears dad who signs over his first paycheck to his suspicious ex (Aja Naomi King).
She lives with their son in a moldy apartment no bigger than Phil’s high-tech shower, and certainly worth a lot less. For Dell, the income is a conduit to self-respect that comes from being able to meet his neglected obligations.
Elsewhere, the movie goes overboard with high jinks — Dell scoring pot and hookers for Phil, the kind of scenes that could have been cut along with the other material trimmed from The Upside after it screened at festivals in 2017 (it’s been tied up in legal proceedings following the collapse of its original studio, the Weinstein Co.).
Hart and Cranston also must transcend the foreseeable trajectory of their relationship. Dell pushes Phil to reconnect to life, to those around him — Nicole Kidman is the devoted assistant whose devotion may speak to deeper feelings. She refuses to obey Phil’s do not resuscitate order, and Dell has problems with it as well, even if the reasons are not ethical/philosophical: “I need this gig.”
And to fill a need, Phil sees, is to be useful, and to be useful is to be in possession of a life worth living. So the two men lift each other up, a message we could have absorbed without the five minutes of hang-gliding imagery that hammers it home.
Directed by Neil Burger. With Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Aja Naomi King, and Tate Donovan. Distributed by STX Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 6 mins.
Parents guide: PG-13 (suggestive content, drug use)