For what it’s worth, “The Upside” is exactly what you think it is: the latest Hollywood effort that aims to show that a black man and a white man with seemingly nothing in common can see past their differences and develop a mutual friendship. It’s just as pat and basic as it looks and sounds.
Maybe as we enter 2019 clinging to ideals of goodness, there is a place for a film like this that doesn’t really have a point beyond which to say that we can, in fact, all get along no matter what. That is, after all, the basis of Dell (Kevin Hart) and Phillip’s (Bryan Cranston) professional relationship-turned-friendship.
When we first meet the two, we’re not really sure how they know each other, because Dell is behind the wheel of a luxury car driving at full speed while Phillip is quietly strapped in on the passenger side, sneering at Dell’s wild road antics. For all we know at this point, Dell is Phillip’s driver, and the latter is not much of a fan of the former. But as the scene progresses, it’s established that Dell took Phillip, who is paralyzed from the neck down, out on a joy ride to lift his spirits. And it’s one of Phillip’s many fancy cars that Dell is driving. Dell, as it turns out, is Phillip’s life aide.
This is one of many on-the-nose scenes in an after-school-special-esque drama that hinges on the unlikely friendship between the duo. Dell is an African American ex-con who’s so consumed with how life has screwed him over that he’s neglected his duties as a father to his young son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “Everything Sucks!”) and ignored the child support mandate, much to the chagrin of Anthony’s mom Latrice (Aja Naomi King, “How to Get Away with Murder”). In other words, he’s a stereotype; even worse, a stereotype with no other purpose than to illuminate the humanity of his white counterpart.
Director Neil Burger (with a huge assist from screenwriter Jon Hartmere, who adapted the story from the 2011 French film “The Intouchables”) attempts, in vain, to turn Dell’s image around but only through Phillip’s gaze, who ultimately sees Dell for who he could become — a responsible man with apparently as yet unfocused dreams — rather than who he presents himself to be. Dell, in turn, sees beyond Phillip’s physical disability and hard exterior to the man he really is, devastated over losing the thriving career he once had as a bestselling author as well as the life he had with his now deceased wife Jenny (Genevieve Angelson, “Good Girls Revolt”). Phillip is lonely, sad, and constantly irritable; Dell helps him see beyond his own pain. (It’s as hokey as it sounds.)
Though “The Upside” is told primarily through Dell’s perspective (his broken relationship with his son and ex is threaded throughout the entire film and other backstory details are pronounced), he still lacks nuance and is mostly just there as comedic relief. It is Phillip who gets a full arc, not Dell. This is particularly irksome because all the characters around Phillip, including Dell, are reduced to mere instruments of his progression despite the fact that at his most basic, he is an angry, middle-aged has-been. But that bottom line is not the core of his character; he gets to have layers while Dell and the other characters don’t.
Nicole Kidman plays Phillip’s former business associate Yvonne, who returns to his side after the accident that leaves him paralyzed and effectively becomes yet another casualty of Phillip’s perpetual grumpiness. But even in her case, Dell is used as a comedic device to soften her steely personality. He’s like the human form of an antidepressant for everyone else in the film.
“The Upside” mimics the same issues that plagued the “The Intouchables” in that it uses its black lead simply as a plot device for the white lead. Much like the similarly praised “Green Book” (which chronicles the unlikely bond between a problematic white man and his black employer, effectively redeeming the former), “The Intouchables” redeems the white man and uses his aide as his narrative prop. (Also like “Green Book,” the French film is based upon an autobiographical story, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s experiences with his black male aide.) Unlike “Green Book,” however, “The Upside” does not rely on racial contrast between its characters but rather on their socioeconomic contrast.
After myriad trial and error, Dell and Phillip gain a mutual understanding with the help of the film’s score (by Rob Simonsen, “The Front Runner”), reminding both themselves and the audience that the universality of Aretha Franklin has the power to bring everyone — regardless of race, color, creed, or class — together. “The Upside” assumes that viewers will look past its shortcomings to embrace this idealistic gospel.