As the years go on I’m actually starting to appreciate January more. Every movie gets a bit of a break during January because of lowered expectations and a universal need to stop watching depressing dramas and overblown action movies. There’s a certain calm to the annual dumping ground that gives films and film critics a bit more leeway in judgment. A film that could get torn apart in December skates by in January and there’s nothing wrong with that.
January is the perfect time to release a movie like The Upside. If it had been released in the last three months it would have rightfully disappeared into a landscape of better films and blockbuster explosions. Instead, in January, it can be exactly what it is without the world looking for more.
Because there isn’t much “more” about The Upside, but in January there doesn’t need to be.
Director: Neil Burger
Release Date: January 11, 2018
The Upside is a movie based on another movie (2011’s The Intouchables) that’s based on a true story, so it’s pretty much all made up by this point. Financial millionaire Phillip (Brian Cranston), who was paralyzed in a paragliding accident, is looking for a new caregiver and randomly decides to hire Dell (Kevin Hart), a homeless convict with no background in caregiving. It’s pretty easy to see where this one is going, as both men bond, with Dell being the only person “real” enough to pull Phillip out of his malaize and Phillip giving Dell’s life some purpose, meaning, and direction. Also, there are penis jokes.
The film is the exact feel-good movie you think it is with little to no surprises in plotting, writing, or pacing. It hits every point it should and then moves on to the next point it should. It’s structured in three parts, comes to the dramatic separation of the two leads at exactly the right time, and then brings them back together in the same reliable fashion. There are comedic parts where you may laugh and sad parts where you may cry. The screenplay could have been spit out by a computer that’s been fed hundreds of feel-good buddy-movies and then asked to generate one on its own. It is, for lack of better words, executed well.
Director Neil Burger, whose career is a mishmash of quality and trash, finds a middle ground between those two things. He plants his camera and lets the actors deliver what they can with what they have and it works to the extent it needs to in order to keep you engaged. Most of the film’s more intriguing aspects, like an in media res opening that’s a flashforward, are cribbed from the original movie anyway. There’s a certain quality to just how well he executes standardized movie making and, in fairness, it’s probably the best way to tell the story. No surprises, just age-old filmmaking tricks to pull you into the tale and keep you engaged. They work well enough.
He’s also incredibly adept at avoiding even coming remotely close to shots of someone’s crotch despite having to film multiple scenes of a catheter being changed. That has to count for something.
I bring up the penis jokes and catheter scenes because they’re a perfect example of the film’s most glaring issues. The movie often veers into straight-up comedy, probably to capitalize on Hart’s strengths, but it doesn’t really need to. There’s an extended, slightly homophobic, catheter placement scene that honestly had me laughing but felt like it should be in a different film. At other times the jokes are right in line but the drama seems too heavy-handed. There’s a happy medium between comedy and drama that the film runs at most of the time but when it veers too far one way or the other is when its finely crafted mediocrity starts to unravel.
Thankfully, Hart and Cranston, supported by an I-showed-up performance from Nicole Kidman, can pull most of the scenes along through performance. Hart might be in hot water at the moment over his past Tweets but his comic timing is still great, and the film actually pulls him back from some of his more overblown antics. If for some reason you really want to see a Kevin Hart movie but he usually just annoys you then this is the movie for you. Cranston steals the show, of course, blending both his comedy and dramatic chops into a convincing character. If the screenplay had been a bit less on-the-nose I think he would have delivered one of the better performances of last year, but mostly he doesn’t have enough to work with to do anything truly convincing.
Nothing in The Upside is truly great. Nothing sets it apart from other movies of its ilk but that doesn’t mean you can’t leave the theater feeling good. Thanks to the fact that its execution isn’t bad and its story warms the heart, The Upside delivers that feel-good movie that actually feels good. There’s nothing wrong with the standard, especially when you’re in a month that’s full of films far below that.