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'The Upside': Buddy Dramedy Lacks Depth

Bryan Cranston is compelling, but Kevin Hart is miscast as the caregiver of a rich quadriplegic in this odd-couple film

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 9 minutes

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Bryan Cranston, 62, stars as Phillip, a broody Manhattan art dealer who suffers in his flashy Manhattan penthouse, sleeping beneath a Calder mobile. Following a crippling paragliding accident, the widowed quadriplegic with a death wish hires smart-mouthed, unemployed ex-con Dell (Kevin Hart, 39) as his live-in caretaker without getting a single reference.

A remake by director Neil Burger that's based on the 2011 French feel-good hit Les Intouchables, the dramedy struggles toward its inevitable catharsis by throwing together the cranky, pessimistic, privileged white opera lover with the street-smart but self-defeating man from the projects who has a soft spot for Aretha.

For Cranston, currently starring in Network on Broadway, the appeal to play a physically constrained captain of industry makes sense. This is an acting challenge, and he digs in with his molars. The Breaking Bad star creates the character without being able to employ his body, remaining compelling and charismatic — and he avoids the bathos to which the character could have been vulnerable.

Hart, still mired in the Oscar-hosting controversy, doesn’t get a career boost here. (He was scheduled to emcee the Academy Awards, but the revelation of old anti-gay tweets led to his stepping down in December. Last week, he made an emotional appearance on the Ellen show to try to resuscitate his reputation.) He’s woefully miscast. Some actors the camera loves, but in this case it has an antipathy toward Hart, particularly in his serious scenes. There’s no complex onion to peel, no getting behind the guarded, toothy smile or scowling mug to reveal a juicy depth intended to match Cranston’s scene for scene. 

The central appeal of the original film was the discovery of French actor Omar Sy. He infused the caretaker’s role with a love for life — underscored by the dancing beats of that most elemental band, Earth, Wind & Fire. The star-making performance won Sy a 2012 César Award (the French Oscar) and ultimately landed him lucrative gigs in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World.

In order to recreate this delicate counterbalance between an effete, privileged white man and an earthy caregiver of color, the Hart role needed to be reconceived to foreground the American comic’s physical humor and comic delivery. However, saddled by Jon Hartmere’s screenplay featuring flat sex-organ jokes that seem even more awkward in light of recent controversies and slapstick set pieces (Dell gets painfully drenched by a hi-tech shower with controls in a foreign language), Hart seems to be desperately underwater for most of the movie.

The inclusion of two prominent actresses, Nicole Kidman, 51, as Phillip’s prickly lovesick assistant, and Julianna Margulies, 52, as his amorous pen pal, furthers neither woman’s career. Although, at least, the love objects are age appropriate, professionally accomplished and smartly costumed by Kasia Walicka-Maimone.

The upside: Cranston compels even when only acting from the neck up and using his ears as erogenous zones.

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