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Review: It’s a struggle to find the bright side to ‘The Upside’

Bryan Cranston, left, and Kevin Hart in “The Upside.” (David Lee / STXfilms)
Bryan Cranston, left, and Kevin Hart in “The Upside.” (David Lee / STXfilms)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Kevin Hart’s transition from brattily charming comic persona to serious dramatic cinematic presence isn’t going quite as planned. His extracurricular controversies notwithstanding, the comedian’s first turn in a more serious role in “The Upside” – a remake of the award-winning French hit “The Intouchables,” across from Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman – should have been a slam dunk. And yet, “The Upside” is missing some crucial elements, and it’s a struggle to find the bright side to this rather hackneyed film.

What’s missing is Hart’s manic energy, which he can’t quite translate into an effective or poignant toned-down performance. Part of what makes his comedic performances work is his characters’ cheerful arrogance is constantly rebutted by those around him within a heightened reality, offering a silly push and pull. With this muted performance in a naturalistic world as the down-on-his-luck Dell, that arrogance just makes him seem like a jerk.

On the hunt for signatures to prove to his parole officer he’s looking for a job, Dell stumbles into a job interview in the palatial penthouse of Phillip LaCasse (Cranston), an uber-wealthy investor who is quadriplegic and requires the assistance of a “life auxiliary.” It’s begrudging respect at first wisecrack for the two curmudgeons, and in a strange turn of events, Phillip offers Dell the job. Somehow, it works, because while neither man wants to be in the situation, they both need to be. Dell is essentially homeless, behind on child support, and desperately does not want to return to dealing drugs.

You will probably guess what happens next: The two men learn to love each other and embrace life through their unlikely intimate relationship. And that’s much of the problem with “The Upside” – so little of it is surprising or fresh. Instead it’s predictable, plodding and laden with well-trodden tropes. Here’s an uplifting montage, and an array of embarrassing female supporting character stereotypes (frigid exec, dead wife, nameless sex worker). At the center, a spirited person of color teaches uptight white people to loosen up already.

The jokes are stale, trafficking in tired, gender-based material that hovers around the edges of misogyny and gay panic. We can’t judge “The Upside” based on the recent controversies surrounding Hart and his old offensive jokes, but we can judge it on the script, adapted by Jon Hartmere, which is clunky and dated. Neil Burger’s serviceable direction doesn’t quite liven things up.

The best scenes of the film simply show the relationship between Dell and Phillip, who share a cynical sensibility, despite their differences. Phillip appreciates that Dell doesn’t pity him, that Dell demands everyone treat him as a real person, flaws, desires and all. You see flickers of what the heart of the film is in one of its most warm and authentic scenes, where Dell takes his charge out to get stoned and order munchies. Their chemistry is easy, unlike the forced bits and riffs that bedevil the rest of the film.

“The Upside” has a heart. It’s just that the film leaves it lukewarm, focusing more on extracting laughs than jerking tears. It suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, while weak writing and shaky character transitions don’t help matters. While this could have been an interesting turn in Hart’s career, it may be back to the drawing board to discover his new iteration.

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