Failed translation: The Upside is slow to show its charm

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in The Upside, a confusing comedy that doesn’t hold up to the original French version. Photo courtesy STXFILMS Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in The Upside, a confusing comedy that doesn’t hold up to the original French version. Photo courtesy STXFILMS

If you’ve ever listened to somebody tell a joke when they’ve clearly lost track of the punchline, you know the experience of watching The Upside. Full of good intentions and boundless charisma between the performers, every moment of real tension in the film is diffused before getting to the good stuff in this remake based on a documentary about a true (French) story. The film redirects genuine emotion into dime-a-dozen plot contrivances, where universal truths and human warmth get jumbled in a game of cinematic telephone.

The story follows the relationship between a wealthy widower, Phillip (Bryan Cranston), who requires assistance following an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the neck down, and his caregiver Dell (Kevin Hart), an unqualified ex-con who thought he was interviewing for a different job.

For Phillip, the mere fact that Dell is able to make him laugh is enough to put him ahead of everyone else with the proper training, and his willingness to make light of Phillip’s condition is a breath of fresh air. Over time, Dell sees his job as more than a way to keep his parole officer happy. It is a path to a better life. Meanwhile, Phillip finds joy and companionship he has not felt since the death of his wife.

It’s a fine premise for a movie, one which propelled its source material, 2011’s The Intouchables, to international success not often seen for a French- language film. But The Upside falls short due to its inability to carry the inherent strength of this story anywhere worth going. It’s too sappy to be an effective drama, the gags are too infrequent to be a solid comedy, and it’s too meandering to be a coherent recitation of narrative beats.

There are moments that are elevated by the performances, when Phillip and Dell begin joking, we believe that these two men truly enjoy making each other laugh. It’s pure chemistry when they are allowed to simply exist as characters instead of being funneled into scenarios straight out of a Hallmark movie. One scene involving the question of whether Phillip will be able to date a woman who does not see his condition as a burden is remarkable, allowing thoughts and feelings to unfold naturally through glances, clever editing, and fine acting. Moments later, the movie condenses all of that earned good will into a groan-worthy excuse to introduce unmotivated conflict between Dell and Phillip. As Yvonne, Nicole Kidman is great with what little she’s given, but her underutilization is perplexing.

The Upside continues the frustrating trend of Cranston and Hart, two dedicated performers with remarkable work ethics, committing to projects that do not do justice to their talent. Of course, it comes to us the first week of the new year, long considered a graveyard for films produced in pursuit of awards that don’t quite measure up. Everyone involved here is capable of better, making it the first misfire of 2019.

The Upside

PG-13, 126 minutes

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

See it again

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, PG, 115 minutes

The Paramount Theater, January 18

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056. 

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

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