There’s an upside and a downside to The Weinstein Co.’s remake of the Gallic smash comedy The Intouchables, which, following its release in 2011, went on to become one of the most profitable French-language films in the history of cinema.
On the upside, the pairing of Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in the lead roles pays off big time, with more laugh-out-loud moments than the original and some particularly hilarious work from Hart, who steps up his game after his fun if broad-minded performances in Get Hard and the Ride Along movies.
On the downside, director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) and writer Jon Hartmere have done little to transform the sappier and more problematic aspects of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s box-office hit. For sure, they’ve found a way to put some better jokes in there, but otherwise they’ve simply changed locations — from Paris to Manhattan, and from the Paris banlieue to the Bronx — and kept the same stereotypical vision of an unemployed black ex-con showing a bitter millionaire quadriplegic how to get his mojo back and laugh about it in the process.
It’s an if-it-ain’t-broke, don’t-fix-it approach to filmmaking that, given the first movie’s overriding success, makes sense on a strategic basis but never really finds its own voice. This isn’t the only time such an intercontinental comic tradeoff has happened: Three Men and a Baby was once a Coline Serreau movie called Trois hommes et un couffin, and just as the U.S. version went on to reap huge dividends, we can expect TWC to bank off their American untouchables for strong returns worldwide.
Following the original on a nearly scene-by-scene basis, The Upside starts off by presenting two New Yorkers on opposite ends of the totem pole. On one side there’s the mega-rich author and investor Phillip (Cranston), who’s been paralyzed from the neck down by a hang-gliding accident and is confined to his bodacious Park Avenue penthouse. And on the other end there’s Dell (Hart), a sharp-tongued felon from the projects who needs to find a job to appease his parole officer, while hoping to get back in good graces with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston).
When Dell mistakenly shows up on Phillip’s doorstep and applies to be his auxiliary nurse, Phillip immediately hires the unqualified, and rather thuggish, candidate. He does this because he’s a bit of a prankster himself, but also because at this point he has very little will to live — even if his dedicated Gal Friday, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), is doing everything in her power to make her boss's life as manageable as possible.
Like in any classic bromance, the two opposites are quickly attracted to one another: Phillip because of Dell’s shiftless, streetwise attitude; Dell because of Phillip’s wealth, intelligence and easy acceptance of someone from another class and color. Soon enough, Dell is humming along to The Marriage of Figaro and Phillip is grooving to Aretha Franklin. All that’s stopping them from driving off together in Phillip’s Porsche is the latter’s depressive and self-destructive tendencies, which are due to both his own condition and, as we find out later on, the death of his wife from cancer. Talk about laying the sauce on thick.
It’s easy to see such a setup as contrived and slightly offensive — even if it’s “based on a true story,” which was actually between a Parisian and his Arab caretaker — as if all a rich white man needs to be happy is a clown from the ghetto who will make him chuckle. And while that’s mostly true here, there’s something so disarming about Phillip and Dell’s relationship that you’re gradually sucked into it without asking too many questions.
Much of this is due to the charisma of Hart and the sharp timing of Cranston, who, confined predominantly to facial expressions, can do wonders through a few simple reaction shots. The film works best when it has the two characters acting like big bad grownups, such as when they get high together in the street, but it’s also pleasingly anarchic toward Phillip’s condition: Not since the Farrelly brothers has a movie dished out so many handicap jokes, and surely this is the first Hollywood comedy to get that much mileage out of someone trying to change a catheter.
If Hart’s character is a bit of a walking cliché and his Bronx redemption story sort of bogus, the comic has such a quick mind and electric presence that you tend to overlook those issues. In certain scenes it feels like Cranston and Kidman are trying their best not to crack up when Hart delivers a line, and those moments prove way more alluring than the film’s gushy attempts to warm our hearts — especially in a closing reel that goes on for too long and plays like a parody of Hollywood feel-goodness.
Compared to the glossy style of the French movie, Burger and his team give this one more of an edgy approach, with lots of handheld camerawork and a certain grittiness that was absent from the original. Production designer Mark Frieberg does an especially good job with Phillip’s apartment, which is like a labyrinth of art, taste and extreme wealth that Dell stumbles through as he tries to pay his own bills.
Production companies: The Weinstein Co., Escape Artists
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Aja Naomi King, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan, Jahi Di’Allo Winston
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriter: Jon Hartmere, based on the screenplay by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Producers: Jason Blumenthal, Todd Black, Steve Tisch
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, David Glasser, David Boies, Zachary Schiller, G. Mac Brown
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Editor: Naomi Geraghty
Composer: Rob Simonsen
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Sales: The Weinstein Co.