The French original told a humorous, uplifting story that boasted trace elements of topicality. In that movie, a young Senegalese man (Omar Sy) found himself working for a wealthy French traditionalist (Francois Cluzet) who had been paralyzed from the neck down.
Transported to New York City, The Upside, an Americanized version of the same basic story, features Bryan Cranston as Phil, a wealthy author and a defiant quadriplegic who hires a completely unqualified parolee (Kevin Hart) to be his caretaker. It should come as no surprise that these two mismatched urbanites eventually will bond.
As directed by Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent), The Upside does little to distinguish itself from its predecessor, aside from using Cranston and Hart to boost box-office appeal.
To keep from violating his parole, Dell desperately needs proof that he's looking for work. When he lands a job taking care of Phil, he gets more than he bargained for. Among his duties: He must master the delicate art of catheter insertion.
Hart, who has taken fire recently for homophobic remarks that cost him a gig hosting this year's Oscar telecast, hits some deep notes, expanding on but not forsaking his comic talents. Some of his more convincing moments emerge as Dell tries to placate his former wife (Aja Naomi King) and re-establish a relationship with his young son (Jahi Di'Allo Winston).
We've all become accustomed to American remakes of foreign-language movies, but The Upside follows an overly predictable blueprint as the two men start to influence each other. Dell listens to opera: Phil discovers Aretha Franklin. You get the idea.
The biggest mystery about the movie involves Nicole Kidman, who plays a devoted assistant to Cranston's Phil. A denizen of the business world, Kidman's character oversees Phil's affairs. The question: What is Kidman doing in this movie?
Despite a few stabs at realism, Upside becomes another movie in which a black character helps a white character fight long odds. Not only is Phil disabled, but he's mired in grief over the recent death of his wife and unable to vanquish memories of the hang-gliding accident that robbed him of the ability to fend for himself.
Cranston’s easy command of the screen works to give his character a bit of an edge. Eventually, Phil risks crushing disappointment by agreeing to meet a female pen pal (Juliana Margulies) who might be a suitable candidate for romance.
Hey, it’s January and expectations for new movies isn’t exactly at peak levels, but aside from giving Hart an opportunity to stretch, The Upside seldom turns its formula into a winning one.