The Upside, the new odd-couple dramedy starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, begins with a police chase. In an effort to cheer up his depressed friend Phillip (Cranston), convict-turned-caretaker Dell (Hart) races the white man’s sleek black Porsche through Manhattan with the latter in the passenger seat, his lead foot growing heavier as the siren pierces the night air. When the cops finally catch up to Dell, they force him out of the car and push him face-down onto the hood. If you watched Widows, BlacKkKlansman, Blindspotting, or The Hate U Give last year—or, hell, paid attention to the news sometime in the past few years—you might find yourself bracing for the worst, whether you define that as the prospect of yet another black man suffering state violence or a ham-fisted lesson by a white filmmaking team on that subject. In fact, neither happens. Dell talks Phillip, who’s paralyzed below the neck, into faking a medical episode, and off they go, a pair of merry pranksters whose racial feel-goodery has next to nothing to do with real-world stakes.
That opening scene is lifted from The Upside’s source material, the 2011 French import The Intouchables, which is itself based on the real-life friendship between quadriplegic aristocrat Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his former Algerian attendant Abdel Sellou. The highest-grossing French-language film of all time, The Intouchables sparked a mini-firestorm when it opened stateside, its comforting tale of a staid white upper-cruster learning What’s Really Important from a disadvantaged black service worker inviting comparisons to The Help, which also premiered that year. Movies like The Intouchables, The Help, and recent Golden Globe winner Green Book aggravate in part for their reduction of racial oppression to interpersonal biases. “If these two very different characters can get along, why can’t we all?” they seem to ask, choosing to ignore the countless institutional and microaggressive ways racism exerts its hidden-but-felt power. The enduring popularity of the race-themed crowd-pleaser makes one wonder what kinds of reassurances are being doled out by these insultingly rosy depictions of racism as limited to easily overcomeable personal prejudice.
All that said, The Upside did not make me despair the way that Green Book did. (Surprise!) If you’ve seen The Intouchables, the remake actually makes for a fascinating document: a project of cultural translation that attempts to make the least objectionable variation of an iffy premise within the parameters of studio filmmaking. Omar Sy, the French-born actor of West African descent who played Philippe’s nurse in The Intouchables, became the first black winner of the Best Actor César (the French Oscar) for his performance in The Intouchables, but his barely sketched character—a serial harasser of a white woman in Philippe’s employ—has traveled and aged poorly.
In his first dramatic role, a subdued, dead-eyed Hart has nothing approaching Sy’s rascally charisma. But director 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. 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 various privileges. Featureless and familiar as it may be, Dell’s redemptive arc helps the stereotypes in the French film graduate to Hollywood archetypes.
Cranston, giving a performance that’s uncharacteristically dialed somewhere below 11, acquits himself better, though he is saddled with vague motivations and an entirely indistinct romance (with Nicole Kidman’s overqualified executive assistant, who’s clearly hanging around because she’s smitten with Phillip but too afraid to make a move). If The Upside improves the depiction of black domestic workers solely relative to the movie on which it’s based, it does a significantly better job of expanding depictions of disability, if only because day-to-day existence with disability is so rarely depicted in cinema. Certainly the gajillionaire leads a charmed life compared with the millions of actual people living with disabilities paycheck to paycheck—not everyone can afford that “jumble of other people’s hands” that he resents his days have become—but we feel it all the same when the guy behind the diner counter asks Dell what Phillip wants, as if the rich man weren’t already terrifyingly capable of realizing the smallest of his impulses.
Other than a jarringly headline-recalling line in which Dell says he’d rather “kill” Phillip than change his catheter, their bromance proceeds as steadily as a military march. Opera-loving Phillip learns to appreciate Aretha, while the brusque, self-centered Dell finds his softer side. Compared with the streamlined Intouchables, the remake feels ungainly, inexpertly suturing together the French source material with Hollywood formula. Still, the amalgamation lumbers along. But its fairy tale might have soared more smoothly if it weren’t made of so many recycled parts.