‘The Upside’ is a genuine crowd pleaser

When I listen to a band covering a popular song, the hope is that the new band will do something new with it, thus making it fresh and appealing. Remaking movies aren’t an easy thing to do, because you have to put your spin on the original without coming off as redundant. Bradley Cooper showed Hollywood how it was done with A Star Is Born, which should be the blueprint moving forward for filmmakers taking on someone else’s material.

While it’s nowhere near as polished as Cooper’s film, The Upside, directed by Neil Burger, does an admirable job of taking something finished and making it appear new and inviting. A couple of game co-stars and some juggling of the plot points help, and in the end, the film worked for me enough to recommend.

Screenwriter Jon Hartmere had his work cut out for him, adapting the film from the wonderfully earnest 2012 film, The Intouchables. There, screenwriters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache expertly crafted a heartfelt tale about class and opportunistic fate colliding with a man from the streets caring for a rich art dealer. Hartmere takes that film, shuffles the deck, and puts his own stamp on the story.

Having Bryan Cranston around helps. He’s Phillip Lacasse, the quadriplegic billionaire who hires Dell (Kevin Hart), a recently paroled ex-con who is struggling to reconnect with his son after getting out prison. Two completely different from opposite backgrounds who need each other. Perfect fodder for a Hollywood makeover.

Throw in a dedicated financial advisor (Nicole Kidman), a love interest (Julianna Marguiles), and an annoying neighbor (Tate Donovan), and the stage is set.

Cranston is such a gifted actor, knowing how to mix laughs and drama for a convincing portrayal of a guy who has all the money in the world, yet lacks the connection required to make you think life is worth living. Recently widowed and suffering from traumatic dreams of the incident that took away feeling below the neck, Phillip is miserable and needs something different in his life.

Hart’s Dell brings that, and plenty of hardship, attitude, and trouble along with it. Cranston finds a way to offset the usual caches of Hart, who often relies on one speed of comedy performance to play a role, wearing down his welcome midway through the film. Here, he gets some dramatic scenes to work with, and finds a way to temper down his overzealous energy to blend well with the seasoned pro in Cranston.

Kidman is incapable of giving a bad performance, adding something extra to Yvonne, the overprotective woman in Phillip’s life who trusts Dell about as far as she can throw him. Kidman and Hart have a couple fine scenes together, including a bit about baseball and how much slack Dell actually has with her and the job.

The film retains a few scenes from the original, including the opening and a funny bit with a beard trimming, but mixes and matches the rest of the plot. A chance encounter between Phillip and a woman he’s been writing love letters is handled differently here, and to good effect. While it was triggered for warmth in The Intouchables, here the meeting is more bittersweet and tragic. Hartmere isn’t interested in merely tracing over the paper with a pencil; he wants to tell his own version of the story.

The heart of the tale, men from different walks of life helping each other and becoming best friends, remains intact.

The film isn’t perfect. The script does have some formulaic moments, and some of the jokes don’t land right. At times, you’ll long for Omar Sy, who won an award in Paris for his portrayal of the caregiver, to show up and pick Hart’s work up. Other times, you’ll recognize why this film was released in January. There’s nothing profound here. Don’t expect to leave thinking Burger’s film has the early lead in Oscar voting.

What I left with was a satisfying remake that I didn’t expect. Seeing Hollywood take a film six years after it first arrived and brush a coat of American cheese over it wasn’t appealing at first. The execution, and easy going charm produced by the two leads, taught me otherwise.

The Upside was better than I expected, a cover band taking the original and showing just enough ingenuity to remind us that reloads aren’t always a bad plan in the land of make believe.  If you like Cranston, prefer Hart’s humor, and want a feel-good tale with some cinematic corn syrup poured on top, check this film out.

However, I implore you to watch the clearly superior original at some point. That’s a true work of art.

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