The casting of Bryan Cranston as a quadriplegic billionaire has led to fierce debate about the portrayal of disabled people by able-bodied actors.
This, however, feels like the least of The Upside’s problems, it being a deeply problematic story about a stuffy white billionaire teaching his young black protégée the wonders of opera and art, while the street-smart ex-con loosens up his patron through weed, hookers and brushes with the cops. The list of racial stereotypes is so long, predictable and occasionally toxic that even the “based on a true story” tag doesn’t really soften the blow.
It’s also a “true story” once removed, this being a remake of 2011’s French comedy-drama The Intouchables. There was no such outcry when François Cluzet – one of France’s most respected actors – played the lead role alongside Omar Sy. The tale of a destitute African immigrant in high society Paris resonated, not only in its home nation but around the world, and it remains the highest-grossing foreign language film of all time.
When Harvey Weinstein snapped up the rights to an English language remake top actors including Colin Firth were said to be sniffing around the role. But there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since 2011, and in today’s climate The Upside feels toe-curlingly patronising and utterly tone deaf.
Despite all this, it’s not a horrible film, merely a misjudged one. Cranston and comedian Kevin Hart – himself battling controversy over his homophobic tweets – enjoy such an easy, infectious chemistry that their scenes together are frequently laugh-out-loud funny or lump-in-the-throat sad. Few people play ageing nihilists quite like Cranston, and while he’s struggled to hit his Breaking Bad form since the show wrapped, his portrayal of the poetic, world-weary Philip is his best work in years.
Hart, too, shows his acting chops, hitting not only the comedy notes but the emotional beats involving his character Dell’s disillusioned son Anthony. Nicole Kidman also brings heavy artillery to the role of Yvonne, Philip’s business adviser and confidant, although her talents are largely wasted in what’s essentially an incidental part.
The Upside is a film that begs to be liked despite itself, and watching it is a roller-coaster of disdain and enjoyment, like being stuck in a lift with someone you admire, only to discover they have chronic flatulence.