“The Upside” has a downside: We’ve seen it a million times before.
Onstage and on-screen, crotchety rich people are changed forever by fun-but-flawed poor people. It’s become a genre, and this feel-good dramedy falls headfirst into all its clichés. Unsurprisingly, “The Upside” is saved by Bryan Cranston — and also, surprisingly, by Kevin Hart.
Hart, previously known for making horrible movies, has been in the news lately for making horrible choices: Witness the mess over his hosting the Oscars, and his old homophobic tweets and non-apologies that had him step down. None of that should detract from the experience of watching his very good performance here. He tones down his comedy just enough and plays up the heart.
Hart plays an ex-con and deadbeat dad named Dell, who was jailed for illegal weapons possession and now needs to prove to his parole officer that he’s looking for work. One day, he stumbles into the Manhattan penthouse of a quadriplegic millionaire who’s interviewing candidates to be his live-in caregiver/assistant. Phillip (Cranston) is tickled by Dell’s careless irreverence, and despite his total lack of qualifications, hires him.
The rest of the movie is a Park Avenue mouse/Bronx mouse affair. Phillip loves opera, Dell loves Aretha Franklin; Phillip is an art expert, Dell is a marijuana connoisseur; Phillip sends women poetic love letters; Dell hits on ladies with abandon. See? They’re different, but also the same!
In the film’s worst role, Nicole Kidman plays an uptight executive at Phillip’s company who obsesses over his well-being like a doting secretary. She refuses to have an ounce of fun, and makes Marian the Librarian look like Lindsay Lohan.
All of this would be tedious and stereotypical were it not for the formidable efforts of Cranston (reserved till he explodes) and Hart. An unlikely duo, they score with many very funny jokes. It’s a bromance that feels real. Together they move you, despite the film they’re stuck in.