PLOT An ex-con takes a job caring for a wealthy quadriplegic.
CAST Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman
RATED PG-13 (some sexual themes)
BOTTOM LINE The American version of a French hit comedy, sans humor.
In the French comedy “The Intouchables,” Omar Sy played a jovial ne’er-do-well, Driss, who takes a job caring for a wealthy paraplegic, Philippe (Francois Cluzet), and helps him rediscover the joy of living. Released in 2011, “The Intouchables” felt like a French attempt at American Oscar bait: inspirational, heartwarming hard to dislike, thanks mostly to Sy's sparkling charisma.
The makers of “The Upside,” the American version, have their own ideas. One is to cast the comedic actor of the moment, Kevin Hart, as the caregiver, opposite no less a thespian than Bryan Cranston, as the quadriplegic billionaire. Another is to tone down the original movie’s comedic aspects and refashion it as a glossy, serious drama.
That last seems like a clearly unwise move, but too late — “The Upside” is here, written by Jon Hartmere and reverently directed by Neil Burger (“Limitless”). The film asks Hart to apply his frantic, spring-loaded persona to a serious role, and challenges Cranston, currently storming through Broadway as Howard Beale in “Network,” to act from only the neck up. In their separate ways, the actors succeed, but they have little if any chemistry. “The Upside” is supposed to be about two men who change each others’ lives, but Hart and Cranston seem mostly stymied by each other, like strangers whose party talk keeps failing.
The film deserves credit for toning down Driss’ poor-and-happy vibe, though. Hart gives that character, now named Dell, a hard American twist, playing him as a surly ex-con. In his scenes with Aja Naomi King as his unhappy ex and Jahi Di'Allo Winston as his wary son, Hart is convincingly wounded and defensive; drama is definitely not beyond him.
The problem is Dell: What does this angry guy have to offer Phillip, another angry guy? This non-complementary setup leads to scenes that don't work. Sometimes they're less than amusing, as when Dell and Phillip hire a couple of sex workers; sometimes they're pretty icky, as when Dell fumbles around with his new employer’s catheter. (Nice try, but you can’t be “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Meet the Parents.”)
The only winner here is Nicole Kidman, who as Phillip’s assistant (and obvious love interest) takes a prissy, passive character and, by some magic, makes us love her. Otherwise, “The Upside” leaves us fairly cold instead of warm and fuzzy. You’d never know it was based on a true story.
Bryan Cranston is the latest in a fairly eclectic series of actors to co-star with Kevin Hart. Here are four others:
Ice Cube, “Ride Along” (2014) This buddy-cop comedy didn’t amuse critics, but audiences turned the film into a hit. It still ranks as the highest opening weekend, with $41.5 million, of any January release.
Regina Hall, “About Last Night” (2014) This remake of the 1986 yuppie classic — itself based on a 1974 David Mamet play — paired a high-energy Hart with Hall, who just last year became the first African-American to win best actress (for “Support the Girls”) from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Will Ferrell, “Get Hard” (2015) Ferrell plays a wealthy businessman heading for jail; Hart promises to teach him how to survive. Critics objected to the ethnic stereotyping, and audiences gave it a lukewarm “B” CinemaScore.
Dwayne Johnson, “Central Intelligence” (2016) The actors played against type, with Johnson as an insecure nerd and Hart as a once-popular jock, to the tune of $217 million. They teamed up again the next year for the ensemble comedy hit “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” — RAFER GUZMAN