The Upside holds little joy or positivity in this buddy comedy


The Upside continues to perpetuate dangerous and offensive stereotypes regarding disability when it isn’t following staid buddy comedy tropes

It’s amazing to think that it’s 2019 and Hollywood still sees people with disabilities as little more than Dickensian-esque sad sacks who only exist to enrich the lives of the able-bodied people they interact with. And by “amazing,” I mean offensive as all get out. Cinema continues to relegate disabled narratives to the categories of Oscar bait or inspiration porn, with nothing in between. So to say The Upside, a long-shelved feature from STX that’s finally seeing the light of day, is reductive about disability is to set the bar very low. The movie was always doomed to be exploitative, so if that’s what you’re looking for you’ve come to the right place. Unfortunately there’s little to find entertaining beyond that.

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in THE UPSIDE. Photo Credit: David Lee/STXfilms

Based off the 2011 French film, The Intouchables, The Upside tells the story of Dell (Kevin Hart), a convicted felon just out of prison with little motivation to find a job. He stumbles upon a position as a “life auxiliary” for wealthy quadriplegic Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). The typical stereotypes of disabled narratives are accounted for: able-bodied man is tasked with giving the poor little rich guy in a wheelchair a reason to live, while said rich guy helps the poor minority elevate himself out of poverty. If anything, The Upside’s script, written by Jon Hartmere, is as offensive to the disabled as it is to minorities. Phillip’s life is a series of humiliations and pity, while Dell is presented as an uneducated African-American who needs to be taught refinement.

Kevin Hart stars in THE UPSIDE. Photo Credit: David Lee/STXfilms

Despite being touted as a buddy comedy, this is Hart’s story. Dell lacks anything passing for motivation, getting indignant when the mother of his child calls him out for his selfishness. Uninterested in getting a job, Dell literally falls into the role of carer for Phillip because the wealthy man likes Dell’s disaffected attitude. The majority of the runtime is more fascinated with making Dell the fish out of water, stuck mingling with the wacky rich white people around him. Potshots are taken at white people who will literally spend thousands on anything presented on canvas, as well as the casual racism Phillip’s neighbors lob at Dell purely because he’s black.

But instead of actively looking at the disparity between the haves and the have nots, the movie turns everything into hijinks. Dell is there to shake up the staid trappings of being wealthy, and is rewarded for it with money that solves everything (this in spite of Phillip’s trite refrain that money doesn’t buy happiness). And as far as Phillip goes, he’s little more than the benevolent handicapped person, a man who made his wealth before he was struck down by disability — itself because wealthy people assume they’re invincible. He has no problems, as Dell reminds him, short of being disabled.

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in THE UPSIDE. Photo Credit: David Lee/STXfilms

Cranston’s come under fire of late for his comments about being an able-bodied actor playing a person with a disability. Yes, able-bodied people “cripping up” is a common technique, but The Upside continues to perpetuate dangerous and dated stereotypes. Phillip is described as “richer” than Jay-Z; he has a penthouse built for him to get around in; tricked-out wheelchairs and several cars. For a person with disabilities, Phillip is a fairy-tale and his rudeness and apathy comes off as the trappings of being an entitled male snob than anything else. Yet the movie wants us to pity him at every turn. Phillip has no friends, short of his administrative assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), who, herself, appears to have no life short of taking care of him. He’s engaged in an “epistolary” relationship with a woman he’s never met, and when the two do meet it’s a humiliating experience that plays as a reminder that people with disabilities are just hard to love.

Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman and Kevin Hart star in THE UPSIDE. Photo Credit: David Lee/STXfilms

The two-hour runtime feels overly elongated for a narrative like this. Once Dell gets the job, the script appears to have a hard time finding things for him to do. He and Phillip bond, grow close, and break up all, but there’s far too much filler for things to feel organic or genuine. Dell emphasizes how he hopes to reconnect with his estranged son, but the two don’t spend any time together in the narrative, short of taking a drive once. A plot point about the job consuming Dell’s time goes nowhere, as if the script forgot to develop it in favor of finding a reason to have Nicole Kidman dance or Tate Donovan do something vaguely racist.

Speaking of Kidman, here’s hoping she was paid a lot of money because she is flat-out pointless. She’s the doe-eyed Bambi purely there to give Phillip a woman to love. As offensive as the use of disability here is, it’s even worse that an actress of Kidman’s caliber is treated this way.

The Upside isn’t a film worth getting upset over. It sat on a shelf for two years, and with Hollywood failing to improve on disabled narratives since, the movie was always going to be bad. But on top of that? It’s just boring. Hart screaming only endures for so long, and the pointed lampoons at his race make you ignore how poorly this film treats its disabled character.

The only upside to this movie is that it disappears from theaters quickly.

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