'The Upside' skates by on feel-good Hart-Cranston pairing

Posted January 10, 2019 1:42 p.m. EST

— After his experience with the Oscars, Kevin Hart could probably use a picker-upper right about now. He likely has a marginal one with "The Upside," a crowd-pleasing remake of a popular 2011 French film, "Les Intouchables," that skates by, barely, on the chemistry between Hart and Bryan Cranston.

The movie's off-screen odyssey, frankly, might be more interesting than the film itself. Originally made by the Weinstein Co., it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, then sat on the shelf for months, while new distribution was secured after the sexual-assault allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein.

(Weinstein has denied all allegations of "non-consensal sex.")

Whether the delayed release helps or hurts commercially speaking remains to be seen. For one thing, the planned release of this fact-based story about two men, through an employer-employee relationship, bridging the racial, social and class distinctions between them would have preceded the much-talked-about "Green Book," instead of following it.

Setting aside that baggage, "The Upside" is positioned as a "feel-good" movie, a term that can be pejorative when not taken on its own terms.

Hart plays Dell, who is recently paroled, estranged from his wife (Aja Naomi King) and young son and in need of a job -- or at least, proof that he's looking for one. He stumbles into an opportunity at the lavish home of Cranston's Phillip, a quadriplegic billionaire looking for a "life auxiliary" -- a live-in helper to assist with all his needs.

In an act of defiance aimed at his executive Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, in a pretty thankless part), Philip chooses Dell, who accedes to the request, but only by placing the new hire -- of whom she clearly disapproves -- on a short three-strikes leash.

Inevitably, Dell's free-wheeling attitude -- and wide-eyed reaction to Phillip's gaudy wealth -- begins to draw out his morose boss, who immediately informs him that he has a "Do Not Resuscitate" order, underscoring his compromised will to live since his accident and the death of his wife.

Almost everything after that is fairly predictable, from Dell wrestling with inserting a catheter to beginning to get his life in order, causing things to drag in the middle. The movie also makes shrewd use of Aretha Franklin songs, whose music Dell pushes on the opera-loving Phillip.

Determined to capitalize on Hart's comedic chops, director Neil Burger ("Divergent") plays up the sillier aspects, while still trying to deliver a heartwarming tale about the bond that forms between the central characters. The fluctuating tone can feel a bit jarring, but even recognizing the ways in which the movie is emotionally manipulative, it's hard to completely resist them.

The best moments tend to be the smaller ones -- like the two getting high together and having the munchies -- that capitalize on lighter aspects of the Hart-Cranston interplay. Those scenes feel more natural, or at least less forced, than the more dramatic face-offs to come.

"Intouchables," it's worth noting, was a huge hit, especially in its native France, where it also amassed numerous accolades. "The Upside" doesn't appear to have that sort of, well, upside, but after its long trip to the screen -- and Hart's long month since briefly being named Oscar host -- it'll do.

"The Upside" premieres on Jan. 11 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.