Five years after the French comedy-drama “The Intouchables” became an international sensation, including a healthy $13 million theatrical return and the remake rights for the Weinstein Company, the Weinsteins have dipped back into the well with “The Upside,” an Americanization that accepts the original’s crowd-pleasing formula as holy writ. That means all the flaws of the original film are present — the lurching swings between irreverence and sentimentality, a reliance on stereotypes, and racial politics that could charitably be described as “quaint” — but two strong lead performances go some distance toward alleviating them. As a rich quadriplegic and a parolee hired to be his unlikely caretaker, respectively, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart have a relaxed comedic chemistry that may not validate the film’s sickly-sweet bromance, but does make it go down easy. There’s no reason to believe worldwide audiences won’t open up their wallets a second time.
Even so, “The Upside” feels like a throwback to the musty racial fantasies of ’80s sitcoms or the white patronage of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Director Neil Burger and screenwriter Jon Hartmere haven’t done enough to tweak the stereotypes either character brings to the table, especially Hart’s Dell, an ex-con from the projects who’s short on child support payments and long on uncultured vulgarity.
After a paragliding accident turns him into a quadriplegic, Cranston’s Phil chooses to hire the grossly unqualified Dell as an act of rebellion and fatalism. With his physical disability joining hand-in-glove with the mental handicap of losing his wife to cancer, Phil has lost the will to live and figures that Dell seems most likely to carry out his Do Not Resuscitate edict should his health take a turn.
It doesn’t take long for this odd couple to find a groove. Phil introduces Dell to opera, modern art, kumquats and the Porsche he has tucked in the garage; Dell takes Phil out of his ivory tower to appreciate the humbler pleasures of hot dogs, soft-serve, weed and Aretha Franklin. In the tradition of another Americanized comedy, “Three Men and a Baby,” there are gags about Dell’s ineptitude as a caregiver, including some early feeding miscues and an excruciating comic setpiece about changing a catheter. But as Dell settles into the job, the racial and class differences between the two men become an asset: Dell shakes Phil from the dreary sterility of his New York City penthouse while Phil offers Dell stable financial footing and a wider set of possibilities.
Whenever “The Upside” gets away from the central relationship, however, the laughs disappear and the syrup accumulates. Nicole Kidman brings a high-strung integrity to the role of Yvonne, a Harvard-educated businesswoman who’s chosen to sideline her career to look after Phil, but their obvious love connection is kicked too far down the 126-minute road. Worse still are Dell’s efforts to reconnect with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and their son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), which are based less on his steady presence in their lives than problems that money can solve. If there’s a subtler point to be made here about money as the root of domestic strife, the film doesn’t have the patience to evoke it.
“The Upside” isn’t a serious or credible treatment of the disabled, just as it isn’t a serious or credible film about bridging the racial divide, because, like “The Intouchables,” it turns its based-on-a-true-story premise into clichéd and synthetic handkerchief-soaker. But Hart gets to open up into a rangier performance that adds sincerity and heart to his manically funny persona, which still gets plenty of latitude. And after a series of grim roles post-“Breaking Bad,” Cranston rediscovers the mischievousness that he hasn’t accessed enough since “Malcolm in the Middle.” He can only move his neck and his face, but he plays Phil with a disarming glint in the eye.
So little has been done to update or refresh “The Intouchables” for American culture or a new audience that “The Upside” has no integrity as a separate piece of work. The casting alone is all that’s keeping it from sinking into a cynical act of franchise burnishing. That may be enough for the Weinsteins to return their investment, but Hart and Cranston deserve a better vehicle than this used model.