I was prepared to hate this film when I sat down to watch it. First, like most of you, I am leery of any movie depicting life in a wheelchair, especially one starring a nondisabled actor. I start getting Artie vibes from Glee. Also, The Upside is a remake of a French film that I liked very much, The Intouchables, released to worldwide acclaim in 2011. How could they top that mini-masterpiece?
Briefly, this is the somewhat-true story of a wealthy white man in his 60s turned quadriplegic from a hang-gliding accident who hires a street-wise black guy to take care of him. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame is Philip, the quad. Kevin Hart is Dell, the lippy assistant. You can see what’s coming — important life lessons are about to be learned.
As the movie unfolded, my attention was on Bryan Cranston. I knew howls of inauthenticity and fraud would soon be flooding social media and raining down on Cranston’s head. “How could he? What does he know about paralysis? They should hire a real quad to play the role!” Indeed, they should, theoretically, and one day they surely will, but it ain’t gonna happen in a big-budget movie in 2019. We are in a transitional phase of media history where talented disabled actors are just starting to get their sea legs. Most of those stars have yet to be born. Now, we get Bryan Cranston.
(Brief aside: Cranston was a friend of — and worked on a wonderful pilot with — legendary quad actor, Jim Troesh, who passed away in 2011. Jim was the first quad to land a recurring role on a TV series — Highway to Heaven — and certainly an apt role model for Philip.)
For my money, Cranston is sensational here. He plays a much different character than his French counterpart in The Intouchables. Whereas the Euro quad was muted and uncomplaining, this Philip is clearly angry, frustrated and not afraid to let it out. In one pivotal scene, he basks in delight as Dell, his sidekick, destroys all of his expensive birthday presents. In other scenes, he gets hit in the face by the real world. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll see what I mean in a first date gone terribly wrong.
As for the rest of the movie — there is a lot to dislike, even cringe over. Kevin Hart plays “Kevin Hart” playing a pat black stereotype — the irresponsible husband and father who gains an easy redemption in the third reel. There is zero suspension of disbelief here, either in the actor or his story. Plus, his reaction to Philip’s condition is often overwrought and ham-fisted. You’ll see this in a scene where Dell is introduced to catherization. Enough said.
So, that’s my take away. Cranston, in a better movie, would be applauded. In this movie, he will probably go down with the ship, a ship that doesn’t move the universal humanization of people with disabilities much closer to the shore.
The Upside opens in movie theaters nationwide Friday, Jan 11. Don’t miss the February New Mobility for a more in-depth comparison of The Intouchables and The Upside.