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The 400-Word Review: The Upside

Despite the best efforts of its stars, there's no good reason this tired formula needed another movie.

Photo by David Lee / STXFilms

There’s a worthy debate raging about the racial politics of “Green Book,” the odd-couple dramedy about a black musician and a white chauffeur in the Jim Crow South. The newly anointed Golden Globe darling has been criticized for a reductive, pat take on American race relations.

If the people behind “Green Book” want to help their case, they should hope everyone sees “The Upside.” Next to “The Upside,” “Green Book” looks positively brilliant.

A tired fable from replacement-level director Neil Burger, “The Upside” concerns another unlikely friendship, between Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a quadriplegic billionaire, and Dell (Kevin Hart), a ne’er-do-well who accidentally ends up employed as the rich man’s caretaker.

A list of the cliches “The Upside” engages in — most of them problematic — would be longer than this review. You can probably assume most of the beats of the plot from a glance at the poster, but for the sake of clarity: Dell is down on his luck, recently out of prison and without regular access to his pre-teen son. Phillip is miserable learning to cope with his physical limitations after a paragliding accident. When Dell gets lost on his way to a job interview, Phillip appreciates the younger man’s caustic wit and offers him a gig.

Dell is skeptical but takes the job as a means to support his son. There are (extremely mild) cultural faux pas and uncomfortable personal-grooming hijinks. Dell teaches Phillip lessons about embracing life. Phillip teaches Dell lessons about ambition and wealth.

How long has this narrative been stale, I wonder? “Trading Places” is generally well-liked. So about 30 years?

“The Upside” is based on the French film “The Intouchables,” itself adapted from a true story. Perhaps an incredibly reductive tale of cross-cultural understanding is less alarming on the continent, but through an American lens, it looks like nothing so much as a lazy attempt to gloss over all manner of societal inequities with a wink and a smile. (To say nothing of the even more exhausted narrative of a street-wise black man who floats into the radius of a wealthy white man to teach him how to live and love, a structure that should’ve died with the 20th century.)

Cranston and Hart (and Nicole Kidman, in a what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here role) do everything they can to find charm, but they’re trying to make a pie from rotten fruit. “The Upside” never should’ve been made.

My Rating: 3/10

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