The Upside is the first film of 2019, and if you go by the critics’ ratings, the film hasn’t been the best way to start the year.
The film is, as Vulture’s Emily Yoshida succinctly described as “the third filmed adaptation of the story of quadriplegic French billionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caregiver Abdel Sellou.” It stars Kevin Hart as Dell, the down-and-out guy who is unemployed due to a prison stint and becomes the live-in caretaker of Phillip, played by Bryan Cranston.
The real story started out as a documentary, then lent itself to 2012 French film The Intouchables, and now this film, which has garnered much less love than its French counterpart. Whereas The Intouchables allowed Omar Sy to become the first actor of West African descent to win a Best Actor César, The Upside has only garnered 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with many reviewers finding the film saccharine road that has been trodden too many times in film.
Yoshida hilariously wrote, “The Upside is the kind of movie whose greatest virtue is that it’s not as bad as it could be–and in this case, what sounds like a backhanded compliment is actually quite a feat.”
Yoshida called the film “little more than the latest spin on the Driving Miss Daisy formula: uptight rich person finds new meaning in life via the life-giving powers of a lower-class minority member who is contractually obligated to work for them.”
Yoshida also wrote that the film that’s being advertised–a feel good dramedy about people from two worlds finding common ground–does a disservice to the story the film should be telling, which is that Phillip is literally using Dell as his surrogate body. Phillip needs Dell to get around in the world, a world that caters almost exclusively to abled people.
“…[T]he epistolary side plot acknowledges the worlds one might inhabit with or without a body, and the value of what can’t be touched or held or danced with,” she wrote. “It’s worth its own movie, but is quickly breezed by en route to the film’s emotional-button-pushing finale.”
Slate’s Inkoo Kang gave the film one of the more positive negative reviews, writing how the film upgraded the french original, The Untouchables, from its white-centric point of view .
“…[D]irector Neil Burger and screenwriter Jon Hartmere do make Dell the film’s protagonist, edging him away from the stock character of the Magical Negro, the selfless, sexless black character who exists to improve white lives,” she wrote. “The recent parolee is endowed with an estranged son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and former partner (Aja Naomi King) to win back, and the character’s not afraid to call out the self-pity-prone Phillip on his varous privileges. Featureless and familiar as it may be, Dell’s redemptive arc helps the stereotypes in the French film graduate to Hollywood archetypes.”
Rex Reed, on the other hand, found Hart to be completely insufferable, writing for Observer, “He may have garnered a few laughs telling homophobic jokes in his old stand-up comedy routine, but when it comes to playing a completely realized character in a full-length film, he’s as funny as a case of shingles,” he wrote.
Reed also found the entire film to be “[s]illy, sentimental and tedious,” writing how he finds it “preposterous” to believe any of it could be based on a true story. “Hiring Dell makes no sense,” he wrote. “Putting up with his insults, delighting in his ignorance of the arts and beaming with approval when he wrecks the penthouse in the middle of a birthday party and smashes bottles of Dom Pérignon all over the glass furniture makes no sense. Hardest to believe is Nicole Kidman, who in the end sheds her glasses, boogies with wild abandon and falls in love with Phillip, now a pothead in a wheelchair.”
Kristen Lopez, a disabled film critic, reviewed the film for Forbes, writing, “Every time Hollywood tells a disabled narrative my eyes roll.”
“As a disabled critic whose beat is disability in cinema, these films are inherently reductive due to the lack of people with disabilities being involved in the directing, scripting, acting and consulting phases of most major productions,” she wrote.
She wrote while her initial idea was to ignore the film, she decided it was worth her time to dissect the film’s stereotype of “the independently wealthy disabled person.”
“This is the second feature to present the idea of an insanely wealthy person with disabilities,” she wrote, citing 2016’s Me Before You. “As Bryan Cranston laid out in an IndieWire article about his decision to star in The Upside, the film is more about white privilege than ableism, but his comments highlight the history of disabled narratives and their convoluted relationship with wealth and income.”
The idea Lopez feels the film supports is that the disabled “are gifted free money and live on easy street,” however, the reality is that many disabled don’t receive a lot of money. Lopez herself wrote she gets “less than $1,000 a month on disability). Health insurance is also precarious, since disability benefits are tied into insurance coverage. This means, Lopez wrote, that if a person loses their benefits, they are subject to lose their insurance coverage.
“Philip, and Me Before You‘s Will, are fairy-tale inventions written by able-bodied people who don’t know the actual bureaucratic hoops people with disabilities jump through merely to survive. These entitlement claims also crop up when asking for more accessibility entering businesses or finding housing. Movies like these perpetuate the belief that the complaints of the disabled are invalid, selfish and unnecessary.”
The IndieWire review Lopez cites includes comments by Cranston, which cites his decision to take a disabled role as “a business decision.”
“Wasn’t even my decision, but maybe that points out to being more focus on disadvantaged or disabled actors, to be put in positions to have more opportunities and more diversity,” he said.
Even though he later says he took the role because of the film’s focus on “white privilege and income disparity,” many have taken Cranston to task for the role, such as actor Adam Pearson, who tweeted out his disapproval.
So, in short, with the reviews, plus this controversy surrounding Cranston’s role, plus the added agony of dealing with Kevin Hart’s bizarre non-apology apology tour for his terrible homophobic jokes, The Upside doesn’t really have much of an upside to speak of.