Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Odd Couple Of Out Of Touchables In New York City

Blue, cold and gray in New York City: Bryan Cranston as Peter and Kevin Hart as Dell in Neil Burger's "The Upside
". David Lee/STX Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, January 13, 2019

What do you get for the white man who has everything but can only move his head, neck and mouth?  Answer: A Black man upon whom racist stereotypes are foisted at every turn in Neil Burger's "The Upside", which we are told up front is based on a true story.  "The Upside" is really based upon the much better original French film "The Intouchables" (which is based on a true story), which we are told at the end.  

The location is New York instead of Paris and now Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, whose once-novelist character Peter chooses Dell (Mr. Hart) to be an in-residency life carer because he is not qualified.  This bewilders me and Peter's no-nonsense executive assistant and manager Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), who constantly scolds Dell, a convict looking for work to satisfy completion of his parole obligations, letting him know in no uncertain terms where he can stick it.  Dell aims to support his child from his estranged wife or girlfriend (the film never tells us which), who is understandably unhappy with his lack of support obligations.

The core of "The Upside" never settles down or feels comfortable in its own skin.  Dry, cold, dull, often drab and flat, "The Upside" has none.  Occasional belly laughs come mostly from a more serious than usual Mr. Hart, whose Dell we never get to really know or feel the soul of despite numerous refrains of Aretha Franklin, to whom the film is dedicated. 

Ever since "The Defiant Ones" then "Blazing Saddles", "Stir Crazy" and later "48 HRS." and "Trading Places" the Black-white buddy genre picture has been a staple.  There have been a few hits and many misses.  Count Mr. Burger's film as one of the misses.

"The Upside" operates more on fear than it does laughs and forces its characters on you, forces the relationship between this oil-and-water duo on you without adequate development of that relationship.  This means that everything in "The Upside" is reduced to symbolism and the filler of the vacant characters is damaging or juvenile stereotypes.  I never felt any spark, happiness or spirit in Peter or Dell as individuals or as a partnership.  They look as if they can't stand each other even in their few joyful moments.  This is less down to lack of chemistry between Mr. Hart and Mr. Cranston than it is Jon Hartmere's poorly-developed script.

Dell, who belongs in a different film, is a faulty, caricatured template of Black men not a portrait of an individual.  Dell is more a figment of a white audience's imagination and any preconceived notions it may have of Dell and other similarly-situated Black men than Dell is a full-bodied (and non-cliched) individual.  When the aimless, fast-talking Dell asks Peter what he, Dell, can do with his own life -- you can smell the whiff of Peter's white paternalistic response a mile off -- and this is half way through the film.  Peter also tells Dell, who isn't as independent as he believes, that "you're very intelligent" --and as Rob Simonson's music score plays on we see Dell registering a satisfied look of being validated.  This is one of the film's most troubling and cringe-worthy moments.  Dell, a self-centered sort who asks every woman he sees if they are married, is a smart man in his general calculations on what life is but "The Upside" dumbs him down only for the patronizing Peter to elevate him again.

When Dell tells Yvonne she's afraid of him, she responds that "yes, I am -- but not for the reasons you're thinking."  Well, what are those reasons?  They are never answered or articulated, they are only assumed, and this is purely consonant with the idea that the white moviegoer (and all moviegoers for that matter) is thinking: race.  This realization only serves to trivialize race -- while "The Upside" itself on a broader level is doing exactly that: trivializing race.

"The Upside", which centers Peter as the most satisfied customer of this group of "types", has dual conversations ensuing about money and happiness yet operates hypocritically according to class.  The crusty and moody Peter, confined to his wheelchair due to paralysis from the neck down, is also trapped in his white male privilege and wealth in his glossy Manhattan enclave, essentially a rich prison.  He's unhappy, bored, lonely and miserable.  Despising his art-dealing neighbor, Peter is also tormented and haunted by the death of his wife and by the event that caused him to become a quadriplegic.  Peter's fears keep him from meeting a woman until Dell intervenes.  (A dinner moment that begins with a refreshing addition ends in disaster and more enforced cliches.)

On the other hand, Dell, who loves his otherwise happy son, who like his son's mother is rich of heart and gets straight As in school.  Dell's son barely talks to him.  Dell is reinvigorated in his son's and ex-wife's eyes only when the checks from Dell's in-care work start arriving.  As soon as those checks stop -- both mother and son are unhappy again.  While this may be a realistic response in many quarters, in "The Upside" both the son and ex-wife characters (and all others outside Peter's penthouse) are drawn as simplistic, superficial and one-dimensional beings, as are the environments they live in. 

Dell, who would literally steal for his child, clearly loves his son regardless of whether Dell himself has money or not.  Money can't buy you love, it only buys you the love of money.  Yet because the film and Mr. Hartmere fail (or don't care) to invest more carefully in these secondary participants "The Upside" presents these two poverty-stricken characters as craven moneygrabbers who are only happy in their lives when money is around.  The truth, whether this is a true story or not -- is always much deeper, more complicated and far less expedient.

Also with: Aja Naomi King, Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Golshifteh Farahani, Genevieve Angelson, Tate Donovan, Suzanne Savoy.

"The Upside" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for suggestive content and drug use.  The film's running time is two hours and six minutes. 

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