There is probably no one in America in or around a wheelchair who won’t find something to complain about in The Upside, a Hollywood film starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart that saw wide release in January. It is the story of a white quadriplegic plutocrat and a streetwise black guy who becomes his caregiver and soul-saver — the latest in a nascent but growing genre, the disability-buddy movie. It begins as an almost exact frame by frame remake of the much-lauded French film of 2011, The Intouchables, winner of five César Awards, the French version of the Academy Awards, and globally, the most financially successful French movie of all time. If the makers of the remake had stuck with the exact same shot-by-shot story beyond the opening two minutes, it would have been a fascinating piece of cultural appropriation — and maybe a better movie. Instead, they ventured off into an “Americanized” story, much of which falls flat.
Watching them back to back, I tried to dispense with two standard movie-viewing clichés. The first is that any American remake of any European film is never as good as the original. OK, this is a cliché mostly among film critics and snobs, since most American moviegoers have never heard of the foreign predecessors to their beloved Hollywood hits. Quentin Tarantino’s famous blood-fest, Reservoir Dogs, was a stealth remake of a Japanese blood-fest, City On Fire, but who knew and who cares? That ear-slicing scene was new to me and probably to you, too. Even American remakes of American movies can be a huge improvement. Best example: Scarface — a remake of a 1932 film with the same name.
The other cliché is that nondisabled actors playing disabled roles are far inferior to disabled actors in the same role. In matters of technical performance, this is no doubt true, and of course, technical performance influences emotional performance and vice-versa. Occasionally, a gifted nondisabled actor, almost like alchemy, can transform themselves into a character with a disability. Think of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot.
If current trends continue, up-and-coming disabled actors will soon get the chance to prove their case. But here we have two acclaimed nondisabled actors, French star François Cluzet in the original, and Cranston in the remake, portraying a quad’s life. From my own half-assed perspective — I’m a T10 para and only know some of what a quad deals with — both actors are brilliant, but in much different, and telling, ways.
Cluzet’s character, Philippe, drawn from the true story of French champagne magnet Philippe di Borgo, plays his disability card as a hard-to-read stoic, both philosophical and temperamental. He knows he is only in control of his interior life, i.e., how he reacts to things. Almost all of his emotional expression is in his eyes. He can smile, especially when his bud Driss (played by Omar Sy) tells crippled jokes, but he never shows anger, hostility, bitterness, or fear, even when he is suffocating in his own bed. As I watched this subtle, complicated performance, I both admired the restraint of the character and saw its level of make-believe nobility. Sure, all us crips want to see ourselves as graceful and resilient — no tears, no excuses — but we rarely are.
Cranston’s character, Philip with one less “p” and no “e,” is angry, frustrated, and much more out there in every way. In one pivotal scene, egged on by his pal, Dell (Hart), he experiences an orgy of delight watching Dell destroy a room full of expensive birthday gifts, his way of saying f-you to the world. At times he seems like someone you know, like yourself.
Unlike the Cluzet character, he isn’t quarantined from the pain of being a social oddity. In another key scene, he has a lunch date with a woman with whom he has developed an epistolary, or by letter-only, romance. After just a few minutes of pretending that fork feeding your completely immobile date is normal, first-meet stuff, she admits she can’t handle the situation, walks out and never comes back to apologize.
Both films, in general, make the disability experience too pain- or hassle-free for anything approximating reality — no spasms, infections, hateful moods, suicidal depression, falls, spills, or accidents. The remake tries way too hard to dramatize Philip’s circumstances. A self-consciously squeamish scene where Dell learns to use a catheter, turns a potentially honest/funny moment into something painfully overplayed and distasteful. Sticking a tube into a paralyzed penis, speaking from vast experience, is not worthy of all this mania.
Disability is only half of both films — the parallel stories of the caregivers, both black, is also told. In The Intouchables, the character, Driss, is completely believable, alternately charming and prone to violent outbursts, and not, as one critic pointed out, “the magical, mystical Negro” who teaches a white guy how to live. Fittingly, Sy won the 2012 César Award for Best Actor for his performance.
His Driss was much more entertaining and enlightening than Hart’s Dell. Hart is one of the most successful stand-ups on the planet and here he isn’t acting as much as playing Kevin Hart. Maybe it’s simply because I have no idea how West African immigrants live in contemporary Paris that I found Driss’ French life much more engaging than Dell’s American version, a tired ghetto trope about an estranged husband and father who redeems himself in the third reel.
George Lucas once said that a movie either worked or didn’t work. A movie that works can be flawed but still have force and resonance. A movie that doesn’t work can have flashes of brilliance and humor, but simply doesn’t allow you to enter another reality or perceive the world from another human’s perspective.
Using that criteria, I found something that resonated in both of these movies, though The Intouchables will likely be watched 20 years from now and The Upside probably won’t. If you are looking for a film about life in a chair that you can mercilessly trash for all the errors and omissions and fraudulent emotions involved, see the American version. Here the cliché holds true — it ain’t as good as the original, not by a long shot.